As the two turbaned strangers with unkempt beards stroll into the courtyard of his warehouse in Kabul, middle-aged Hashmat Khan's bearded face suddenly turns ashen. As do the faces of six other traders who were exchanging jokes with him a moment earlier. "Taliban," whispers one of them in the sudden silence. "Keep quiet," cautions another as Hashmat excuses himself and reluctantly walks towards the two. A little later, he returns. "They took 200 (Pakistani Rs 200)," he tells his friends with a sigh. His fellow traders giggle. "This is normal," explains another of them. Soon, they resume trading jokes over their green tea.
The incident isn't sporadic. For Hashmat and hundreds of other businessmen and traders in war-ravaged Kabul and in the rest of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, bribes, extortion and blackmail have become a way of life. Each cargo truck leaving or entering Afghanistan has to pay at least (Pak) Rs 2,000 as bribe—or what in business circles is known as "speed money". This, of course, is in addition to the normal duties and taxes. Moreover, be it a vehicle registration or the sale or purchase of properties, or any other government-related work, bribes are an accepted part of the process. The amount to be paid to Taliban officials in order to get the work done ranges from 10 to 25 per cent of the transaction amount. "If you approach a Taliban minister with a complaint, they can sort it out. But it takes time and delays the work. So one simply doles out money. That's why it's called speed money," says Ahmed Jan, a transporter.
It's been quite a change in image for the Taliban from the time when, just five years ago, these clerics and students from seminaries and refugee camps in Pakistan were hailed as saviours of the Afghan people. But then, Afghanistan today is a land of sharp contrasts. Taliban ministers, their high-ranking officials and their Arab and Pakistani friends live in palatial houses in the once posh neighbourhoods of Kabul. They roam around in luxurious four-wheel drives, escorted by an army of gun-toting bodyguards, and spend their time eating rich food in expensive restaurants. When they are not doing that, they're either 'thinking' or looking for young brides. But for ordinary Afghans, it's a hellish life. Children scavenging in garbage dumps and women begging for money and food outside restaurants and on the streets is a common sight. Even those who are not living on the streets and have somehow survived the 25 years of conflict and infighting see no future for themselves or their children. For, the Taliban have destroyed the education system and replaced it with own syllabus, which emphasises little else apart from their version of Islam.
The meal-time scenes at Kabul's expensive restaurants on Shahre Nau are a revelation: hundreds of rich Taliban and their friends can be seen gorging on the food, oblivious of the swarms of widows and children thronging outside. "I don't see any hope. There are so many problems. You ask anyone, ask the women and children, all they want is peace. We've been destroyed by Pakistan and outside powers," complains Amanatullah, a teacher. There's simply no economy. In Kabul, as in other cities, all the industries have shut down. Afghanistan now relies on Pakistan and Iran for its needs. People prefer the Pakistani rupee over the Afghan currency, with one Pakistani rupee worth about 130,000 Afghanis. In the absence of any banking system, traders in Afghanistan, and their business counterparts in Iran and Pakistan, settle their payments through barter and transfer of money through hundi, bypassing the banking channels of all three countries.The average government pay here ranges from (Pak) Rs 250 to Rs 1,500. This is hardly enough to meet even the basic costs of living. And even senior university teachers have to maintain a second job in order to make ends meet.
Clear evidence that the Taliban, even half-a-decade after taking over, have not managed to win the hearts and minds of the people comes from the mosques. Most are nearly deserted. The Taliban instead depends on its Orwellian 'Vice and Virtue Department' to instill fear and discipline among the populace, as well as to force them to accept their brand of Islam. In fact, the closest resemblance one can think of is Hitler's Gestapo operatives. Initially, the mere sight of a Vice and Virtue squad was enough to cause a stampede in the markets. People would go into hiding at the first hint that these squads were on the prowl. These men are a law unto themselves and the rumour is that even Taliban ministers are afraid of them. With a penchant for wearing dark glasses, these men usually roam about in darkened four-wheel drives and carry leather and rubber whips to enforce their Islamic code of conduct.
But most Afghans are now used to these squads, though they're always on the lookout for them, and take evasive action. For example, a cab driver will hide his audio cassettes at the mere sight of these law enforcers, and men with trimmed beards will go into hiding or simply run the other way once the 'Gestapo' men are seen. Of course, it's always the poor who are targeted. The rich in Afghanistan, as anywhere else, usually find a way out. There was this instance where an Afghan trader brought in a girl to 'celebrate' with his friends. The Taliban got wind of it and promptly arrested the young woman. They then approached the businessman. Though this happened six months ago, the businessman wasn't arrested, instead, he paid up: he's had to part with over $1,400 in three installments to three Taliban teams who threatened to persecute him if he did not oblige them, again and again.
Each night at 10 pm, Kabul, like Afghanistan's other cities, faces a night curfew. But recently, the people of Kabul have witnessed a number of early morning robberies. The culprits: the Taliban. "Only the Talibs could do this. You can't expect an ordinary person to rob your house during curfew. If we go to senior officials, they ask us to identify the criminals. How can we do that? But Kabul is abuzz with rumours that it is the Taliban who select rich families and then rob them during the curfew hours," says a former Kabul university teacher.
Interestingly, though the Taliban forced women into purdah, it's been unable to stop them from wearing fashionable high heels and colourful clothes under their veils. Evidence of this is visible in Kabul and the city's downtown market. "Afghans are basically a free people. The restrictions haven't stopped them from being fashionable. Under their chadris, they wear everything," says Bakhtiar Ahmed, a civil engineer. "The moment the Taliban lose power, you'll see the Afghan man shave his beard and the woman burn her veil," avers Ahmed Yar, a trader.
The Taliban, a majority of whom are from the rural areas and the product of seminaries in Pakistan, have a clear contempt for women in the urban areas. While women in the rural areas are free to work in the fields alongside males, in the cities the women are not allowed to go out of their homes to work. But despite these restrictions, the business community has found a way out.In Kabul alone, there are dozens of private houses where Afghan women work discreetly. Usually, the businessmen hire these houses, and the owners—be it a widow or a couple—employ women living in the neighbourhood. "The Taliban were adamant in the beginning. But we told them it was an injustice to these women. They know about these houses, but are now ignoring them. The only stipulation is that men should not visit these houses. And we observe that rule," remarks an Afghan trader.
It's been a long-running tragedy for the Afghans. After the Soviet withdrawal and fall of the Najibullah regime came a period of bitter infighting among various mujahideen groups. Fed up of the strife and constant instability, they initially trusted, even welcomed the Taliban. Now, they rain curses on the militia and its main supporter, Pakistan. "In reality, they made us more backward. They restored peace, but destroyed us and Afghanistan. We would be happy if they control just the borders and let the people live their lives in peace inside," remarks Ahmed Zai, a student of Kabul University. But then, the warlods don't agree, and Afghanistan's dark night of agony continues.
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