The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 28, 2001
Entering a city that never
rose from ruins
War With Terror
E-Mail From Kabul One in an occasional
Afghanistan - When we drove into Kabul Nov. 13, accompanying the anti-Taliban
guerrillas as they entered Afghanistan's capital, the city looked better
than I had expected. Despite the American bomb strikes, Kabul seemed
almost sophisticated - at least to someone who had spent six weeks in the
rural north, where people use donkeys for transportation.
not until we drove into the southern part of Kabul that the full weight of
what this city has endured struck home.
swaths of it were utterly destroyed by factional fighting after the
mujaheddin ousted the communist government in 1992. Factories, houses,
schools, offices - all reduced to rubble by rocket attacks from warlords
vying for power. Fifty thousand people died, and the city was so weary by
1996 that it welcomed the Taliban as a stabilizing force that would put an
end to civil conflict.
fighting did stop. But since then, there has been almost no attempt to
rebuild. Mile after mile of Kabul still looks like Dresden after World War
II, empty of life.
the destruction and wondering what it must have been like to live through
it helped explain why so many Kabul residents had mixed feelings about
glad to be rid of the Taliban, many were hesitant to embrace the Northern
Alliance troops, whose commanders included many of the same men who
wrecked the city less than a decade ago. So far, Kabul has not descended
into an ethnic bloodbath, as feared. But there is an undercurrent of
talks began this week in Bonn, Germany, on how to create a broad-based
Afghan government, it helps to remember that Kabul was relatively stable
in 1992 when the communist government fell and rival mujaheddin forces
came to town. Chaos erupted only after talks broke down about creating a
we arrived on Nov. 13, most of the city was shut down. The Taliban had
packed up and fled the night before, and looting already had begun. So the
Northern Alliance commanders - who had promised to wait outside the city -
decided to waltz in and take over.
first order of business that day was to race to the Intercontinental Hotel
and claim a room. My driver, a 20-year-old from a town the Taliban overran
three times in five years, could not contain his excitement. Horn blaring,
he drove a victory lap as though he personally had liberated the capital.
We went all the way downtown before I realized we had overshot the hotel
by several miles.
what I know now, perhaps it would have been wiser to keep driving.
room at the Intercontinental is the first place I've stayed in more than
eight weeks in Afghanistan that has a bed, a desk and a toilet with a
seat. Unfortunately, it lacks heat and running water. I have to go to the
lobby if I want to flush, as do a few hundred other people. You can
imagine the hygiene issues.
request, the hotel provides a bucket of hot water for in-room bathing, and
in the last few days has begun offering soap, bedding and towels. But it's
still like camping out.
staff is accustomed to a half-dozen guests a night in the best of times,
so it is overwhelmed at suddenly having all 180 rooms booked by a horde of
international journalists. Many of those rooms appeared unusable - filled
with broken furniture or old box springs - but this crowd doesn't care. A
dozen are sleeping in a conference room; as more arrive, they just conk
out in the hallway. The bar, which hasn't served a drop of alcohol in
years, has been taken over by journalistic squatters.
has come to life in the two weeks since the Taliban left. The markets are
filled with previously banned goods - CDs, televisions, VCRs, disposable
razors - and the streets are paved with . . . carpets.
is big business here, but everyone knows it's the antique rugs, not the
new ones, that fetch high prices from foreign buyers. Clever Kabul carpet
makers find the quickest way to age a rug is to lay it out on the street
and let the traffic do the rest.
you find any rugs with tank treads on them, you know they're of very
Kabul is being run by Northern Alliance troops, their control does not
necessarily extend much beyond it. Many rural areas are ruled by local
warlords, bandits or rogue ex-Taliban troops. Four journalists were shot
and killed a week ago when they were stopped about 35 miles outside of
Kabul, causing many of us to re-evaluate this assignment.
weekend I traveled northwest to Bamiyan, the town where the Taliban
destroyed two huge, ancient stone Buddhas, a horrendous crime to those who
dirt road along the Gorband River had just opened to truck traffic when we
arrived Friday, driving behind Sayed Sher Jan Jalal, the regional
representative of the militia that controls the area. Jalal guaranteed our
safety as long as we were in his territory.
few miles up the Gorband we arrived at Riobi Solang, a community I had
visited in October. I wrote then that the villagers maintained a sense of
normality only a few hundred yards from the front line - which I was now
about to cross.
a line of vehicles idled. One had hit a mine, we were told, but the road
soon would be clear. Mine sappers stood by a pile of mines the size of
tuna cans, collecting a 50-cent toll to pay for their efforts.
the traffic began to move again, we had driven less than a quarter-mile
when there was a hollow explosion. A 10-wheeler ahead of us had struck a
mine in the middle of the road. The blast disintegrated the inside wheel
and blew the outside wheel off its bolts, shooting out about 200 feet. A
half-dozen children took off chasing the tire.
stalled once again. Drivers and passengers got out to survey the damage,
careful to walk in the tracks of previous vehicles. Nobody was driving
was then that our guide, Jalal, hopped into his jeep, thrust it into gear
and headed off down the road, passing the disabled truck. Before our
translator could communicate our desire to walk, thank you very much, our
driver followed the same off-road route. It was, as my colleague in the
car said, "a butt-clenching moment."
you have to be daring to get people moving," Jalal said later,
smiling. "If I hadn't done that, the cars would have stayed there all
us to be on the leading edge. The rest of the trip proceeded with no
further heart-stopping moments.