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Afghanistan: Herat's Treasures Can't Compensate For Atmosphere Of Fear

The 16th-century Moghul emperor Babur, writing in his memoirs, said "the whole habitable world had not such a town as Herat." That was when the western Afghan city was celebrated as a center for the sciences and the arts. Today, Herat is better-known as the home of Ismail Khan, the governor of the province and an independent commander with a large private army, enormous wealth, and loose ties to the central government in Kabul. On a recent visit to Herat, RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco discovered a beautiful city whose heart seems to be missing, as he relates in this Afghan notebook.

Herat, Afghanistan; 29 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Chronicled for its educated populace, its poetry and literature, its art and architecture, Herat was once known -- in the words of travel writer Jason Elliot -- as the "political and cultural metropolis of the continent."

As for me, I wanted to leave the city almost as soon as I arrived.

During a four-day visit last week, Herat felt more like a prison with a fresh coat of paint than a city celebrated for its learning. Ismail Khan, the provincial governor and celebrated mujahedin, appears to tolerate dissent with the same leniency as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and seems as feared among his people.

As a journalist, reporting from Herat was exhausting, frustrating, and, frankly, a bit intimidating. Interviews with those few who dared to speak with RFE/RL against the provincial government were often conducted behind closed curtains. Interviews would suddenly end when the wrong question was asked.

"Karim," a young man who is involved in forming a political party in opposition to Ismail Khan, spoke with RFE/RL on condition that his real name and occupation not be used. After speaking with him about his Democracy and Freedom Council of Afghanistan, I asked him what he thought would happen if Ismail Khan knew that he was speaking to a journalist. "I know this issue very clearly. And I think that there is no bigger danger for someone than to be arrested by Ismail Khan while talking as we are doing now. And definitely, [Ismail Khan] would kill him without any trial. And I believe that Ismail Khan will act in such a way with [those in] opposition."

Yet, Herat is, undeniably, an attractive, orderly, and well-run city. Unlike the capital, Kabul, the traffic lights in Herat are functioning, although as often for donkey carts and gaily decorated horse-drawn chariots as for cars and trucks.

An oasis city, Herat's many paved streets are lined with stately pines, and a flower park with paths defined by pastel-colored bricks has sprung up between the busy streets in front of the Mowafaq Hotel, where Osama bin Laden is reported to have slept. Children happily play marbles in circles drawn in the dirt alleyways, and a new multistoried public library is rising on a main thoroughfare.

Compared to the capital, electricity here is more reliable, the streets are less dusty, the people more stylishly dressed -- even the women peeking from beneath their omnipresent burqas -- and most of the buildings are reconstructed, despite one writer likening the city after the Soviet bombing in 1979 to Hiroshima. Ismail Khan, who receives untold millions of dollars in customs duties from trade with neighboring Iran, knows how to spend his money -- at least where it will have the most superficial benefits.

Herat is also a safe city. Fewer armed and uniformed soldiers are seen on Herat's streets than in Kabul, but it is anyone's guess how many plainclothes security forces Ismail Khan has lurking about. And that's the problem with Herat. No one feels at ease. No one is to be trusted. An atmosphere of paranoia seems to grip the city.

"Haroon" also agreed to speak with RFE/RL about life in Herat as long as we didn't use his real name or occupation. My translator, Mustafa Siddiqi, and I picked Haroon up one morning. We asked him if we could conduct the interview at the office of RFE/RL's correspondent in Herat, Ahmad Behzad, whom Haroon had not yet met. During the interview, Haroon's remarks were bland. His harshly critical comments during a chat the day before came out watered down once the tape recorder was turned on.

Later that day, I found out why. Haroon believed Behzad might actually be working for Ismail Khan. Later that day, I asked Haroon to recall what prompted those feelings. "Well, it's vivid. It was because of the intelligence of Ismail Khan. And, in fact, the intelligence is very strong. And I was very afraid that if I had said anything and they had become aware of that, then definitely I would have been tortured. And I'm sure that such a thing would happen because we don't have the right to say whatever we want. They will interrogate us. And I was afraid this morning because I did not know Ahmad. I thought he was one of the citizens of Herat. I did not recognize him as a journalist. So I changed the way of my speaking and did not want to speak against Ismail Khan."

My trip had started promisingly enough. A beautiful flight in a small plane low over central Afghanistan revealed snow-covered peaks and lesser mountains whose contours resembled the creases in crinkled brown paper. From above, the streets of tiny Afghan villages appeared to be scratched in the sand with a stick.

From the air, Herat revealed itself as a smear of green surrounded by far-off hills -- not the spectacular situation enjoyed by Kabul's proximity to the Hindu Kush range.

The uniformed commander of the security detail at Herat airport offered us a ride into town in his weary car, and balked only slightly when I offered him $5 for his troubles. He wanted $10. Desiring an interview with Ismail Khan himself, and hearing on good authority that he would respect me more if I was up-front about my intentions, I registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I received an accreditation to cover social and cultural issues in the city -- as well as a compliment on my beard from one of Ismail Khan's soldiers.

I was told my request for an interview would be considered. I wanted to speak with Ismail Khan about the recent Human Rights Watch report that accused him and his forces of political repression, arbitrary arrests, and torture. I wanted to hear his side of the story.

He may be a renegade independent commander, but he runs a tight ship. His office actually returned phone calls, including during one adrenaline-charged evening when the promise of a late-night rendezvous with the governor seemed probable. Later, his spokesman offered to speak with me only if I agreed not to broadcast his comments in Dari or Pashto. Evidently, it's OK to speak with foreign journalists as long as what they write or broadcast will never be read or heard in Herat.

Between interviews, Mustafa and I walked amid Herat's fabled musalla complex, whose five surviving 15th-century minarets -- bathed in the dusty glow of a Friday sunset -- are one of the most memorable sights of my month in Afghanistan.

We also visited Gazargah, the shrine of the 11th-century Sufi poet and philosopher Khwaja Abdulla Ansari, where members of the Qaderya Tariqa -- one of the four tariqas, or ways, in Islam -- were praising Allah by performing the zeker, a type of prayer. "Allah is the One, Allah is the One," they chant, while a "pir" of Tariqa recites a religious poem in the background.

Ismail Khan and I never did speak, but I did see him -- twice. Once, he passed in his gleaming black Toyota Land Cruiser after exiting a restaurant I just happened to be visiting, after turning down yet another interview request.

The second time came at Herat's great Friday Mosque, where again -- quite accidentally -- I arrived for a bit of sightseeing, only to find the governor was due to speak in honor of some reconstruction work that had just been completed. Ismail Khan and I sat cross-legged on the carpets not 10 meters from one another -- he scratching his bushy white beard, me pondering the incongruity of his bodyguards toting Kalashnikovs inside such a beautiful place of worship.

Ismail Khan and I made eye contact. I tried to discern something in his stare. I saw nothing.

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.