It was no place for a woman; much less for an Indian. Brandishing weapons, the Taliban were racing into the capital of Afghanistan in tanks and Toyota Hilux trucks laden with ammunition. The night of September 26, 1996, was their heady moment. A moment when they had stormed into the Presidential Palace in Kabul and established their hold over the country.
Sensing the advent of the Taliban, the staff at the Indian embassy had upped and left and just then—when former pro-Soviet president Najibullah's body was hanging from an electric pole—I was working my way into Afghanistan. It was one of my most claustrophobic assignments—the burqa lying right on top of other long-sleeved garments that had been especially packed for the trip—but a fascinating one. It was the only time the Taliban allowed Indian journalists in, perhaps because they were heady with success. Perhaps, to show that the Northern Alliance which had stamped our Afghan visas in Delhi had been driven out, past the Panjshir Valley, to the north of Kabul.
The Taliban had come a long way from the madrassas in Pakistan, from where they were first recruited. Provincial peasants, who had grown up on a staple diet of religion and war, they gawked in awe at the ornate chandeliers and the spacious hallways in the palace. Accustomed only to mosques and battlegrounds, they walked the silk carpets with trepidation. Arabic translations of the United Nations charter were available but the Taliban were not interested in playing the game of diplomatic nuances and international political norms. They had their own code of governance and soon got down to the task of implementing it.
The press was soon to get a taste of the Taliban's style of functioning. Invited to witness what they called a "bottle smashing ceremony", we stared as a tank rolled its blades into a heap of brandy and beer bottles. There were other ways of banning liquor but the Taliban did it their way. They made their point forcefully—which is the way they always do. Just like they did recently to the Bamiyan statues—strapped them with explosives and blew them up.
The local population—fed up with the prolonged war which first started in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan—greeted the Taliban with a mixture of hope and fear. Fear because they had already made their edicts known in the districts of Herat and Kandahar which they had occupied in the two years preceding their march into Kabul. Women had been banned from working and girls from attending school. Still, there was hope. Hope that since they were now the rulers of Afghanistan, they would get more responsible. That since they had chased the Northern Alliance out of the seat of power, some semblance of normalcy would return. That peace would replace not just the rain of rockets but the loot, rape and rising prices that the Northern Alliance had come to be associated with.
The Taliban continued the way they had begun. That is their way. I was horrified when I saw them beat up a woman on the street because her feet were showing beneath her burqa. That, I soon realised, was only the beginning. Shopkeepers were being beaten up if they closed shop early—keeping them open late would lend them some semblance of normalcy, or so the Taliban thought. Widows were forced indoors and that meant starvation, for they were working to keep their children alive. In hospitals, girl children were being segregated from the boys. The children's ward had been split into two as had the intensive care unit.Outside, men were forced to grow beards and pray five times. Worse, they were being encouraged to pick up the gun.
The international aid agencies were getting angry and it was their turn to call a press conference where they condemned the Taliban's attitude towards women. Afghanistan is a country that survives on aid. Of an estimated population of 18 million, six million Afghans need aid to survive and nearly 20 per cent of those in need are children under the age of five. And now that United Nations flights no longer fly into Afghanistan for fear of being shot down by the Taliban, there is real fear that once the snows block the roads by end-November, at least 1,00,000 families inside Afghanistan will be cut off from vital supplies like foodgrains, blankets and plastic sheets.
The Afghan women I met were seething with rage. "I would rather be shot than die a slow, painful death," said one of them. She was working as a nurse at a hospital run by the International Red Cross Committee and for the first few days she had been going to work, hiding in the boot of an icrc vehicle. But now the Taliban had started checking all vehicles. The aid agencies had a strong gender policy and encouraged local women to work. But all that had changed. As far as the Taliban were concerned, they just couldn't comprehend why the whole world was screaming when all they were doing was "protecting their women". A woman, a Taliban soldier told me, was like a rose which should be smelled only inside the house and not be admired by all and sundry.
I got a taste of their attitude to women too. I was angry when asked to leave the round table around which I was sitting with other journalists waiting for a press conference to begin. The deputy foreign minister, Shir Mohammad Stanakzai, was to address us but he would not do so until the women reporters got up and stood at the far end of the room and "no questions please...women can't look men in the eye", we were told. This, I must confess, was mild compared to what was yet to come and it is here that the story starts to get dangerous.
Once outside, I decided to head for Panjshir where the Taliban were staving off an attack from the just-defeated Northern Alliance. Out there, in the battlefield, the Taliban were more themselves: talking through the barrels of their guns and dodging splinters which poured like metallic rain.
Here, in the midst of the battleground, they didn't have a problem looking me in the eye or talking to me. Except for one Taliban soldier who walked away when he learnt that my photographer colleague accompanying me was neither my husband nor my brother. "You are not supposed to be out with strange men," my translator told me, beginning to get nervous.
The nervousness passed and the Taliban had adrenaline flowing for they were back where they belonged—the battlefield. The same battlefield from where they now see American planes flying overhead. They have been fighting since 1996 to wrest complete control of Afghanistan and I can't but help think of how they will put their guns down briefly when it is time for namaz. Rows and rows of soldiers with flowing beards, kneeling on the ground—their guns beside them. They were hardy, committed and unafraid of dying. This was when they were fighting for political control. Under attack now from the US and its allies, it's a battle of faith. Over three weeks into the war, the Pentagon too seems to have realised this, for they are now talking of the "Taliban's resilience" and of them being "battle-hardened survivors".
They are not just survivors but fighters who undertake long journeys in the name of religion. "Have you heard about Kashmir?" I asked out of sheer curiosity and was not just surprised but taken aback with what I was told: "Heard about Kashmir! I've been there and back," said one and then another. So many of them had added to the list of "foreign mercenaries", a noting that had begun appearing in army and Intelligence Bureau files since 1994 when "guest militants" had first been welcomed into the Valley.
If you are surprised by this, read on. "I trained and worked with Maulana Masood Azhar and Nasrullah Langriyal," he continued. Happy to hear that I was a frequent visitor to Kashmir—where he said he would return for the jehad once their hold over Afghanistan was complete—he wanted me to request the Indian government to release the two he described as "Islamic preachers".
Masood Azhar is well known. Arrested in the Valley in February 1994, he was released in Kandahar in exchange for passengers aboard the hijacked IC-814 flight. Langriyal, a senior member of the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, is still lodged in an Indian jail and was involved in various acts of terror in which he killed at least nine bsf men.
I had laughed then, on hearing the young Taliban soldier's request. It is hitting me now. Masood Azhar and Langriyal were both trained in camps in Afghanistan. They are well known to the Taliban. I realise now that the cauldron had been brewing for years. Omar Sheikh, another militant who was released in Kandahar, is now supposed to have wired $10,00,000 to Mohammed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers who crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
I remember now how the young Taliban soldier had even offered to take me to the training camps in Kosht. Afghanistan's training camps produced the likes of Masood Azhar whose Jaish-e-Mohammed struck terror in the Kashmir Assembly on October 1; just as Omar Sheikh had aided the September 11 strike in New York.
I was not the last Indian who visited Afghanistan or interacted with the Taliban. Jaswant Singh, the minister for external affairs, was. He flew Masood and Omar Sheikh to freedom. A flight that only contributed to the clouds of terror. Terror that has led to the war in our region. It's almost a month since the bombing began and the Taliban have showed no signs of cracking. They won't. Not in a hurry. They are hardy, committed and unafraid of dying.
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