Amid the ruins of war, Afghans tread warily
KHOJE GHAR, Afghanistan—The new steel bridge over the river Kokcha is a proud, glistening monument to the Taliban's ultimate defeat.
If Afghanistan's latest civil war had a Gettysburg, it happened in the small town of Khoje Ghar in the northeastern province of Takhar, near the border with Tajikistan. This was the Taliban's high-water mark. This was where outnumbered and cornered Northern Alliance irregulars made a defiant stand long before anyone dreamed that the US military would arrive to help them. This is where they stopped the Islamic militia's bloody march across Afghanistan.
The bridge on the route from Kunduz to Khoje Ghar is also a symbol for a land that is no longer at war, but that still is paying a bitter price for relative peace one year after the first US air raids signaled that Washington had begun its war on terror in Afghanistan.
Merchants and shepherds who cross the Kokcha's green rapids each day give thanks to the US planes whose bombing raids contributed to the Taliban's removal, and to the German relief agency that recently rebuilt the span to replace the one that alliance commanders blew up in the fighting.
But when they cross, they do so in defiance of a sign on the bridge's northern end that reads in Dari and in broken English: "Use of the bridge on own risk road to Khoje Ghar not demined."
The bridge is on the road from Khoje Ghar, where the front lines ran last Oct. 6, and where fighting began a day later, to the provincial capital of Kunduz, 60 miles to the southwest, where the last major Taliban force surrendered.
This road runs along the Pyandzh River that forms the border with Tajikistan. It cuts through one of the country's most isolated farming regions, dominated by Uzbekis and Tajikis.
The destruction caused by the fighting, the local privations of 23 years of war, and the challenges facing regional leaders, make the road a microcosm: It could be nearly anywhere in the country.
And as the United States turns its attention away from Afghanistan and toward Iraq, officials and citizens along the road say the job that began with the rout of the Taliban is only half done.
Sayeed Mohammad remembers the way panicked townspeople crowded a ferry at the site of the wrecked old bridge as the Taliban advanced on the town after overrunning the provincial capital, Taloqan, 30 miles to the south, in January 2001. The Taliban shot those who could not get away. Alliance commanders found the bodies of 70 women and children in mass graves, although locals say the hard-line militia slaughtered hundreds of civilians.
The Islamic fighters paid the price last fall. US bombs devastated the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the US-backed Northern Alliance advanced toward Kunduz in mid-November and engaged the militias in pitched battles.
In a ravine on the Kala Kata ridge above the town of Zartkamar, 10 miles west of Khoje Ghar, an abandoned Taliban position lies untouched, the dirty rags of the clothing of those who died here strewn among the remains of trenches. The ground is punctured by small ragged holes from US cluster bombs. Not far away are the bodies of 10 Taliban fighters in the hasty graves their retreating comrades dug for them as they tried to escape the assault.
The bombs continued to kill after the Taliban left. This year, 10 people have died in the small farming village of Mengchuqur, 18 miles west of Khoje Ghar. The townspeople fled their homes during the Taliban advance in early 2001 and were not here during the US raids. But the Taliban fighters who occupied the place turned it into a garrison, and therefore, a target of American B-52s.
Not all of the cluster bombs exploded, leaving the village bristling with still deadly ordnance after the Taliban retreated, and the refugee families returned home to find their livestock gone and their farms devastated. As far back as early December, townspeople were trying to draw attention to their plight.
Early in the spring, Abdul Rahim, 15, and his cousins Nur Mohammad, 7, and Hal Mohammad, 5, became the latest victims when one of them found a partially buried, unexploded cluster bomb and hit it with a stone to see what it was.
The older boys died instantly, but the townspeople thought they could save Hal Mohammad, who was wounded in the leg, according to Nawaz, 17, a friend of Abdul Rahim's. But the nearest medical clinic was in Khoje Ghar, a two-hour walk. Hal Mohammad bled to death before help could arrive.
Now, white checks that look like the Nike swoosh mark the mud brick walls of Mengchuqur's humble homes, signifying that the village has been cleared of mines. A de-mining team from the Britain-based Halo Trust finished its work here two weeks ago. But they came too late for Khudai Kul, father of Abdul Rahim.
"I had one son and he's gone," Khudai Kul said. "Now I have a white beard. We have no food, no land, no animals. I had one son. That is all."
Even families who were spared the loss of a loved one were devastated when they returned to their towns and found them utterly destroyed. Few of the homes were habitable when people returned to Mulla Qul, once a thriving settlement of 3,000 ethnic Uzbeks along the Pyandzh, four miles to the east of the main town in northern Kunduz Province, Imam Sahib. Villagers have rebuilt the gravel road to Imam Sahib and are constructing new administrative buildings. Those who spent the war in Iran or Pakistan as refugees received tents and blankets for shelter. Those, like Juma Khan, who camped out on the deserted islands in the Pyandzh nicknamed the "Jungle" by locals, received nothing.
"We sleep under trees, wherever we can," Juma Khan said. "With Americans involved in Afghanistan, we were hopeful that when we get back home there would be something nice given to us. But so far, there has been no help."
Hundreds of villages in northern and central Afghanistan have been similarly turned into heavily mined ruins. If the rebuilding work is going slowly because of a lack of funding, the de-mining of Afghanistan is proceeding at a snail's pace by vital necessity.
"As you can see, it's one man, one mine," Sayeed Israil, a worker for Halo Trust, said as he worked to remove a land mine near the road to the Salang Tunnel, which connects Kabul with the rest of northern Afghanistan.
The United States never promised to rebuild Afghanistan by itself. But people here look to the same Bush administration that helped rid them of the Taliban for aid in the reconstruction.
Gul Mohammad, the official in charge of Imam Sahib, said relief agencies had helped rebuild roads and put up 400 temporary, two-room shelters. But he said the aid was woefully inadequate in a region where most of the 400,000 inhabitants live in the ruins of their former homes. He said that 25,000 children attend schools in his district, but that not one school has been rebuilt. No one can get medical help, because the five-acre, four-story medical center that Imam Sahib once had was taken apart, stone by stone, by the Taliban.
Imam Sahib appears to have returned to a semblance of life before the Taliban. Its horse-drawn carriages, adorned with bells and brightly colored beads, jingle along the dusty dirt path that is the main street, past well-stocked fruit stands and stores selling imported soft drinks, electronic appliances, and videocassettes, all of which had been banned under the Taliban.
In the evening, when the town has five hours of electricity, people turn on their televisions, also prohibited by the Taliban, and watch Russian programs via homemade satellite antennas. But the normalcy this image implies is only an illusion.
"If you look around you can see people dying because there is no hope. The war is over, but people are dying now because of lack of doctors," Gul Mohammad said in an interview. Moments before he spoke, a Boston Globe translator saw a baby dying of dehydration after suffering a stomach ailment in Imam Sahib's marketplace.
"This is a very common problem," said Najib, a doctor in Imam Sahib who helps at a field clinic set up by Doctors Without Borders. "If someone does not have access to a doctor and they have this illness, he will die. A lot of people are dying of malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery."
Najib had to hurry out of the interview. The local police chief, Abdul Kayum, had ordered him to do an autopsy on the body of Kurga, a 30-year-old mother of five who had died overnight. In Kurga's neighborhood, the talk was that her husband of 15 years, Shiragha, 35, had strangled her out of jealousy. Abdul Kayum said it was well known that Kurga had taken a Taliban lover. Shiragha is reputed to be one who "does the works of powder" - meaning he smuggles illegal drugs to Tajikistan.
The UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention says Afghanistan's heroin and opium production has returned to levels approaching the years before the Taliban banned the planting of poppies in 2000. Drug-control officials in Tajikistan say Imam Sahib is the location of one of the main heroin-producing laboratories. They accuse former Northern Alliance commanders - including Abdul Kayum's cousin, Amir Latif, the governor of Kunduz - of being the chief traffickers.
But no one in Imam Sahib admits that the drug trade has picked up, or even that it exists in northern Afghanistan.
"The drug problem was very grave during the Taliban period," said Abdul Kayum, the police chief. "But the Taliban is gone, and this business has been eliminated."
It was hard to say whether Abdul Kayum was complicit in the coverup or was merely reflecting the relative helplessness of his position. His newly created police force has 29 officers, whose salary amounts to a dollar per day, and 94 rank-and-file troopers, none of whom has been paid in the five months of the force's existence. Abdul Kayum has one car and no communications equipment. Even if he wanted to fight the drug trade, he hardly has the resources. And anyone who is involved in drug contraband has powerful friends in Afghanistan and over the border to the north in Tajikistan.
After journalists asked him about Kurga's death, Abdul Kayum decided to investigate, but he was not yet calling it a murder investigation. Adultery is considered a capital crime here, punishable by stoning to death, and the feeling around town was that if she had had an affair with a Taliban fighter, her husband, Shiragha, might have been justified.
Although the pro-US government, led by Hamid Karzai, has abolished the Taliban's ban on women working or studying, attitudes toward women in Afghanistan have been slow to repudiate the Taliban's repressive canon. And women have been even slower to take off their burkas.
This is one of the surprises of life in northern Afghanistan after the Taliban. Outside Kabul, it is rare to see women on the street without the full-body-covering garment that the Taliban decreed they should wear, even in Afghanistan's bustling and cosmopolitan second city, Mazar-e-Sharif, just south of the border of Uzbekistan. In Imam Sahib, women go out in public only in their burkas.
Meanwhile, former Taliban officials walk free. The Northern Alliance, seeking to avoid reprisals, decided to forgive Afghan members of the militia for the excesses of its five-year rule, and the Karzai government has continued this approach. The former Taliban commander of Kunduz, Amir Khan, now lives a peaceful existence as a sheepherder. Commander Hashim, who ran Imam Sahib for the militia, now runs the northwestern city of Maimana as an ally of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord whose troops made up one of the main factions of the Northern Alliance.
Karim Nerima, who was a mullah in Imam Sahib under the Taliban, said he has no trouble even though he lost his job at the mosque. He said he is no longer a Taliban sympathizer, although he did have a dig for the US forces who have pursued the movement's leaders.
"The Americans were unable to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar," he said, grinning. "Now that is deplorable."
It is hard to say how many people in Kunduz region still support the Taliban. The region is evenly divided among the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, who had formed the core of the Northern Alliance, and the Pashtuns, who made up the vanguard of the Taliban. One rumor in Imam Sahib - impossible to verify - has it that dozens of Al Qaeda fighters are still hiding in the region.
The police chief, Abdul Kayum, denies this, saying that US Special Forces troops, led by an officer whom he named as Steve, swept through the region in July, going house to house and picking up 50 former Qaeda fighters. Others question how peaceful the region can be when the main factions, Dostum's Jumbish-e-Millie and the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami, have yet to disarm and continue to fight.
Throughout Afghanistan, from the remote highlands near Pakistan to the forlorn villages near the Iranian border, conditions one year after the war are much the same: The Taliban have been scattered, the Americans are a fleeting presence, powerful but remote - and the warlords and armed thugs are day-to-day reality.
"Everyone has weapons," said Amanullah, who runs a guest house in Imam Sahib. "No one has disarmed anyone."
The regional rivalries are particularly dangerous because the authority of the Karzai government does not extend beyond Kabul. Factions loyal to rival warlords continue to hold sway in the provinces. Battles among them are common, such as a clash last week between Jumbish and Jamiat factions that killed 17 last week in the mountain town of Dara-e-Suf in Samangan province, 60 miles south of Mazar-e-Sharif.
And though the US military and its Afghan allies have chased the Taliban and Al Qaeda from power, these groups are reportedly preparing to try to fight a guerrilla campaign similar to the one that drove the Soviets from Afghanistan.
The new alliance, the Islamic Martyrs Brigade, is said to be led by a former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who commanded one of the US-backed guerrilla armies that defeated the Red Army in the 1980s. Now, Hekmatyar, who hails from Kunduz province and who still has a following there, has called for a "holy war" against US forces in Afghanistan, and has reportedly assembled former Al Qaeda and Taliban forces to carry out suicide attacks and ambushes against US soldiers.
In a country where it is never more than a few miles to the nearest battlefield, the possibility of new battles causes alarm.
"We could not stand it, people would not know what to do," said Sayeed Mohammad, the owner of a cafe in Khoje Ghar that sits under a poster put up by the Karzai government that reads: "Don't be cruel, don't accept cruelty, respect the laws."
"How much does one country have to take?" he asked. "We've endured so much!"
(Note: Afghans use various spellings for Afghan names in the Latin alphabet. In the Globe story that ran on Sept. 5, 2011, the spellings of Afghan names were updated to reflect a commonly used standard.)