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For many Afghans, it's a date without meaning but a year when history was
By Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan — Through an archway hung with musty drapes, in a gallery of photographs from a distant place, Afghan visitors sit in quiet solitude and record their thoughts about Sept. 11.
"Tears came to my eyes," a man named Mohammad wrote in the guest book, recalling images of New York skyscrapers in shards. "They'll remember this for 100 generations."
Outside in the dust and noise of an avenue called Aysme Watt, across from Kabul's little National Gallery and its "Ground Zero" photo exhibit, the pushcart peddler Faqir stood beside his mounds of raisins and looked puzzled.
"No, I haven't heard anything about buildings falling down," he told an inquiring foreigner. "No, `September 11' doesn't mean anything to me."
For this country's illiterate millions, a numbered box on a calendar, a tragedy befallen people far away, has little to do with their daily struggle to survive. But all Afghans -- know it or not -- can trace the birth of a new Afghanistan to that day, the 20th of Sanbula on their calendar, and to the horrible deaths of strangers one morning a half-world away.
Even Faqir didn't miss the American jets that showed up in Kabul's skies 26 nights later.
"At first I was afraid," he said, "but then we saw they were just bombing their targets, the Taliban, and we weren't afraid anymore."
Today Faqir and anyone else can see the changes a year has wrought on Kabul's teeming streets: the burqa veils lifted from many women, the pious Muslim beards shorn off many men; the vast street bazaar of televisions and other once-forbidden pleasures; the sexes studying together at the university; the old king back in his palace; the American flag waving once more over a U.S. Embassy hidden behind a new steel-plate fence.
In the countryside, too, a born-again Afghanistan is there for all to see, along the rough, bruising roads from Pakistan, where Afghan families in their hundreds of thousands are journeying home from years as refugees; in the checkpoints of local warlords vying for a cut of local power; in the sudden raids on suspected enemies by secretive U.S. forces.
That American military role here, a year after Sept. 11, is an increasingly sensitive subject for many Afghans.
"Until al-Qaida is completely finished, they must stay," Sofia Kabir, an unveiled English-language student, told a visitor to the Kabul University campus. "And after that," her classmate Wahida added, "they should go back to their country."
On the 20th of Sanbula a year ago, with early word of the hijackings and destruction of the World Trade Center towers, some Afghans sensed immediately it would mean upheaval for them.
Kabir watched the frightening scenes unfold on TV at her family's home-in-exile in Pakistan, and heard American suspicions voiced about Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, the terrorist corps sheltered in the Taliban's Afghanistan.
"I was afraid for our country, because the Taliban belonged to al-Qaida," she said.
In Kabul, medical student Karim Hanafi, 20, heard the news from New York on short-wave radio. "I knew only Osama bin Laden could have done this."
He thought of American military might. "I imagined my country next might become like Iraq or Vietnam."
Word of the New York and Washington attacks flashed quickly through Kabul that night and next morning, and within hours well-connected Afghans were passing around videotapes recorded from illegal satellite dishes.
But many were kept in the dark. "Our teachers didn't talk about it," remembered 17-year-old high school student Mohammad Azim. When the bombs started falling, "they told us, `Don't worry! God is kind!"'
Sipping tea in a shabby restaurant looking out on a bustling Kabul thoroughfare, a middle-aged Afghan businessman recalled his thoughts a year ago, and how good, in his view, has flowed from evil.
"I was in Pakistan and saw it on TV, and after a while I realized that if Osama bin Laden hadn't been in Afghanistan, no one would care about our country," said Nassar Ahmad Husiny.
Through the 1990s, the world had cared little as Afghan factions bled their country in civil war. Then came Sept. 11, and all that has followed -- the bombing, the toppling of the Taliban government, the U.S. military presence -- has helped his Afghanistan, Husiny said.
In busy, urban Kabul, sentiment a year ago ran strongly against the rural Islamic zealots of the Taliban. A bitter Husiny said his brother once was seized for what amounted to ransom by Taliban agents. At the university, a group of medical students scoffed at the memory of the turbans and "national dress" the Taliban forced them to wear.
"They wanted us to be like them," said Hanafi, in baseball cap and casual shirt. "It was impossible for us to be like them."
But the biggest difference, these young men agreed, has been the opening of the university to women, after five years of harsh anti-female discrimination by the Taliban.
"It's very difficult to study without girls," insisted a smiling Abaceen Rommel, 20.
Sofia Kabir, an "old" freshman at 23, seems overjoyed with her new role as a student. She plans a career as a teacher. "The most important thing in life is education," she said.
A year on from Sept. 11, the list of most important things for the new Afghanistan is a long one: to resettle up to 2 million refugees coming home to a land laid waste by 23 years of war; to rebuild the roads and bridges, the schools and hospitals, the waterworks and irrigation canals, the power and communications systems; to reunify the nation, to find the political formulas to bury the ethnic and regional animosities that outsiders -- and ambitious insiders -- have used to keep Afghanistan divided, weak and at war.
Why has it all happened? He may not have caught all the headlines, but Faqir the peddler thinks he knows why. "The Americans came because the Afghan people weren't free," he said -- free of the authoritarian Taliban checking that his beard was sufficiently long, his public prayer sufficiently punctual.
Rommel the student, like many educated Afghans, is more ambivalent. He complained of America's support for Israel, American military footholds on the Arabian peninsula. "America's policies were the main reason for Sept. 11," this young man said. But he also sounded unsure of when he wants the Americans to leave their foothold here. "The Taliban would come back."
A year later, the striving people of Afghanistan will have little time to spare to reflect on the events of that day, the morning some 3,000 died in places called Pennsylvania, Washington, New York. New Yorker or Kabuli, the heart lies at home, and here at home they have miles of ruins, a nation of ruins, to reflect upon, after a generation of war that has left more than a million of their fathers and sons, mothers and daughters dead.
A group of Kabul hospital workers visited the "Ground Zero" exhibit, viewing the blow-ups of collapsed towers, the American faces full of shock, and entrusted one of their hardened band to record their thoughts. "It reminds us of our own wars," he wrote.
Another visitor was more direct.
"I have seen the ruins of the World Trade Center," this man, Abdul Qadir
Raofi, wrote. "But Afghanistan has been damaged 100 times more than that."