Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 28, 2001
Entering a city that never rose from ruins

At War With Terror
E-Mail From Kabul One in an occasional series 

KABUL, 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.

It's not until we drove into the southern part of Kabul that the full weight of what this city has endured struck home.

Great 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.

The 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.

Seeing 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 Nov. 13.

While 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 tension.

As 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 new government.


When 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.

Our 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.

Knowing what I know now, perhaps it would have been wiser to keep driving.

My 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.

On 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.

The 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.

Kabul 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.

Carpet-weaving 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.

If you find any rugs with tank treads on them, you know they're of very recent vintage.


Though 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.

Last weekend I traveled northwest to Bamiyan, the town where the Taliban destroyed two huge, ancient stone Buddhas, a horrendous crime to those who treasure antiquities.

The 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.

A 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.

Ahead, 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.

Once 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.

Traffic stalled once again. Drivers and passengers got out to survey the damage, careful to walk in the tracks of previous vehicles. Nobody was driving anywhere.

It 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."

"Sometimes 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 day."

Lucky us to be on the leading edge. The rest of the trip proceeded with no further heart-stopping moments. home page   
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