While Kabul was falling to the Northern Alliance ten years ago, a young Kabuli journalist found himself in the Taleban heartland of Kandahar trying to get home. He had to head against the tide of Taleban fighters who were all streaming southwards. Our guest blogger, Shoaib Sharifi, said that everyone feared for their lives as the US B-52 bomber planes prowled overhead. He begins his account in Kandahar on 11 November, two days before the fall of the Afghan capital.
In the early hours of an autumn day, I was walking through a shattered city on my way to try to get home to the Afghan capital. I was in Kandahar and could hear the sound of explosions all around me. There was barely another moving creature on the streets, as I walked through a burnt out city, passing bombed 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickups (the Taleban’s vehicle of choice). I remember approaching a burning fuel tanker with its smoke rising higher and higher, overshadowing the gigantic black mountain which sits in the heart of this city.
I had just driven in from neighbouring Urozgan province where I had been writing a report about the drought for my newspaper, the Kabul Times, and facilitating a food distribution by a charity that I worked for part time. We were five weeks into the US bombing campaign and the towns and provinces of northern Afghanistan had begun to fall.
Just one week before when I had last been in Kandahar, the city had been gloomy but full of energy and action. Now, not even a single Taleb could be seen. Plain white pieces of cloth hoisted on top of some of the buildings and roundabouts were the only sign that the Taleban were still in power. It was hard to tell that this was the same place, the hub of Taleban power and the headquarters of the self-declared Amir-ul-Mu’minin (the leader of all the Muslims in the world) and Taleban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, as well as the home of the his most precious guest, Osama Bin Laden.
I was desperately looking for anybody who could tell me what was happening. At the very end of the street, right in the heart of the city, a man appeared to be standing. I started running towards him, only to find out that he had been hanged. He was just dead. I thought I was dreaming or watching a Hollywood movie, except it was me in the middle of the street standing in front of a hanged man, in a real life. Very soon, the audience had grown, but no one was talking to one another. We were all wearing turbans, yes the black turbans known as Paj (a type of soft cloth), which were and still are mostly worn by the Taleban.
In the media, Kandahar appeared strong and we could still hear Taleban spokespeople defying the American invasion of Afghanistan. But the spirit of the town was gone. It was a silenced, inhospitable place and the circumstances were clearly urging me to leave.
I rushed to Kabul station on the northern side of the town to see if I could hire a car to get to Kabul. There, I bumped into a colleague from the aid agency we both worked for, Sardar. He also lived in Kabul and was going to drive a Taleban style, 4×4 Toyota pickup back. We left Kandahar together, heading for Kabul on the bumpy 400 kilometre long highway. On a ‘normal’ day in those days, it took 24 driving hours to reach the capital.
During my five years of reporting under the Taleban, my description of them was as a group of rough and tough, hard-line fighters who marched ahead breaking front lines fiercely and even driving over landmines to chase their enemy.
But that day, it was a different story. Scores of those 4×4 pickups packed with armed Taleban were heading away from the frontline, ie away from the capital Kabul. It was a chaotic scene. Almost every few kilometres, we came across a fatal car accident. Those who had survived the crashes were walking on foot towards Kandahar. The infamous US B-52 bomber could be heard roaming above us and any gathering of people on the ground was a high potential target.
We saw one Taleban car driving at high speed on four flat tires. At one point, I saw at least a dozen wounded people at a crash site, some of them bleeding and all shouting for help, but no one stopped – not even us. Strangely, we did not feel bad for not stopping. It was like my grandmother’s description of Judgment Day, when ‘everyone will be running in different directions and there is no emotion or hard feelings because everyone is dispersed, struggling for his or her own survival.’
We stayed the night in Ghazni province nearly 150 kilometres south of Kabul. Early the next morning we continued our journey. This was 12 November 2001, the day before Kabul was to fall.
The situation was even more tense and we were the only 4×4 vehicle driving towards Kabul. Dozens of Taleban vehicles packed with fighters were driving in the opposite direction. As we reached Wardak province, less than 100 kilometres from Kabul, we became stuck in a completely unexpected dilemma.
In the heart of Maidan Shah town, I noticed dozens of cars had parked facing Kabul. All were packed with Taleban fighters. I thought they were the right people to check if Kabul had fallen or not and if the road ahead was safe. As I got out of the car and greeted the man who seemed in charge, he welcomed us and said they were, ‘regrouping to protect Kabul from invading foreign troops’ (Americans), as well as the ‘corrupt and evil forces’ (his reference to the Northern Alliance). Oh my God, I thought, this was the last thing I wanted, but we could say nothing. We were trapped and would have to wait to see what would happen.
The man in charge was called Mullah Nur and he was a local Taleb from Wardak. He had blocked the exit south of the town, so more and more fleeing Taleban were forced into this corner for ‘regrouping’. But it did not last very long; the B-52 was roaming above and the pressure to escape was increasing on the ground. At last, a man from this now massive group stood up and called on everyone: ‘Brothers, leave to wherever you can and protect yourselves.’ He told us there was no front line to defend and ‘the enemy’ was not fighting face to face. ‘They are cowards, hitting us from the sky. The front line is in the air not on the ground. We cannot fight these bombers with light machine guns. We shall go and make a tactical retreat and we will come back only when Allah determines the time and opportunity for us.’
We were told that there were landmines on the road ahead, so we decided to deviate and take an alternative route, going first eastwards to Logar province and then, we hoped, on to Kabul.
We stayed the night in Logar and on the morning of 13 November, as we prepared to leave, we learned that Kabul had fallen. In Logar, however, the Taleban were still dominant and defiant. It is the gateway to south-eastern Afghanistan, the strong, conservative, tribal region bordering Pakistan. The mood of the Taleban in Logar was a bit more relaxed compared to Wardak province, even though it is less than 50 kilometres away from Kabul. However, the Taleban knew their tribal unity would protect them and make it hard for the advancing forces to break into this vast and yet well-connected tribal region.
But there were some people who were not from Logar, who were not even from Afghanistan, but from thousands of miles away. I saw scores of women and children, mostly Arabs and some Chechens, knocking on locals’ doors and asking for shelter. They were the family members of foreign fighters who had either been killed or had escaped to Pakistan. The innocent and desperate faces of those women and children was the first thing to revive my sympathetic emotions in two days, but I could do nothing except shed some tears.
Now I knew Kabul has fallen into the hands of the Northern Alliance, but I was still in a Taleban-controlled town, wearing a black turban and driving a Taleban-looking 4×4 Toyota. As we left the town, my friends advised me to dress normally and leave everything to do with the Taleban behind – or risk being killed by the angry Northern Alliance forces because of my resemblance to their enemies.
So we left everything behind, including – most difficult for me – my black turban and a beautiful Kandahari cap. After six years of working in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan for a government-owned paper, I had only that year managed to afford a genuine Kandahari rosary cap – which has sparkling, diamond-like, small pieces of glasses used in Kandahar for caps and these days also mixed with embroidery on shirts – and a top quality, black turban. It had cost three months’ salary from The Kabul Times. But I exchanged it all for the chance to get back to Kabul.
I entered the city on the day it fell (13 November 2001) at around lunch time and started to feel so strange and unfamiliar. Some men had just shaved and looked like black and white-faced ghosts – after six years of growing beards, the fresh skin which had been underneath was so white compared with their otherwise tanned faces. Music was being played everywhere and you could tell a celebratory mood from some of the faces. There were two unpleasant facts however. One was the reappearance of the armed men who had once destroyed this city and, through their brutality and killing had forced people into welcoming the Taleban into Kabul in 1996. The other was the reappearance of British forces in Kabul, a century after the end of the last Afghan-Anglo war. According to the MoD, British Special Forces were in Kabul in November and then in December the UK led the first ISAF deployment.
These were two aspects of history which seemed to have repeated themselves and I began the new era with mixed feelings – of confusion, as well as optimism. Ten years have now passed, the foreign forces are beginning to leave and, for the first time since the fall of Kabul, on a trip to Urozgan in the summer, I once again wore a black turban – this time, to allow me to travel in relative safety from the Taleban who are now back there and powerful. Are we again returning to another beginning? Only time will tell.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020