Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 25, 2001
Fending off the Taliban and tending to the fields

At War With Terror

RIOBI SALANG, Afghanistan - Most days pass peacefully enough in this village along the Gorband River, where there is no outward sign of the menace that lurks less than a mile outside of town.

Farmers plow their fields for winter wheat, children play in the dirt, and veiled women hang out the wash in this seemingly idyllic community of mud homes built into the sides of a sheer canyon bracketing a few acres of tillable land.

Several hundred yards upriver, where the stream and the dirt road turn hard left by the rusted wreckage of a Russian tank, it suddenly becomes Taliban territory. The front line in Afghanistan's civil war abuts the outskirts of Riobi Salang.

As with many front lines in Afghanistan, most of the men and boys who guard the trenches and bunkers built into the hills around Riobi Salang are from the village itself. The militiamen, who are opposed to the hard-line Islamic regime in Kabul, have a great interest in defending the front because their homes and their families are at risk.

"We are confident in our troops," said Saydol, 28, a commander here who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. He points at his house on the hillside, the last one in the village, the first one Taliban fighters would encounter if they spilled over the hill. "If we were not confident, how could we keep our families here?"

The Taliban has overrun Riobi Salang three times since it pushed the government from Kabul in 1996. The incursions coincided with Taliban offensives in the Shamali Plain, the rich farm area 25 miles north of Kabul where troops from the opposition Northern Alliance are lined up against the Taliban. The Kabul front line is less than an hour's drive to the east from Riobi Salang, so each time the Shamali fills up with Taliban forces, people here are forced to flee their homes to escape the advancing flood of enemy troops.

Except for occasional skirmishes and exchange of frontline posts, the line here has remained stationary for more than two years. Taliban forces seem content to stay put, occupying the next village upriver. That village is populated by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan - and in the Taliban's leadership. Riobi Salang is an ethnic Tajik town.

Tajiks and Uzbeks are northern minority groups whose members make up most of the Northern Alliance troops.

"The people in those areas tend to be more sympathetic to the Taliban," said Abdul Latif, 38, another farmer-soldier. "The people there live much like us. They continue to work in their fields like we do."

To get to the front line, visitors walk to the end of town on what is left of the main road leading to Bamiyan, site of two huge, centuries-old Buddhist statues that the puritan Taliban destroyed this year because they were un-Islamic.

After the last dwelling, the entourage narrows into single file. Saydol suggests staying to a footpath on the left - the rest of the road may contain mines.

About 300 yards from the front line, where the road gradually is exposed to Taliban positions on the far hills, the commander suggests the visitors and soldiers move ahead only in pairs, to make the group less attractive for snipers.

The final 200 feet of the journey, through a four-foot-deep trench, are traveled hunched over at a trot, shielded from Taliban positions only a few hundred yards across the stream. The stone bunker at the end of the path is like an orchestra pit, offering scant protection in front of a vast granite amphitheater filled with Taliban spectators.

"We trade shots with the Taliban all the time," said Abdul Rahim, 50, a farmer with leathery skin and a beard touched with gray. He fought to defend Riobi Salang during the 1980s, when Soviet troops came to prop up a communist regime.

"We've been fighting to defend this place all our lives," said Rahim, who is armed with a machine gun and a prayer rug. In rear positions, Northern Alliance troops have mortars, rockets and tanks trained on the Taliban positions.

Fortunately, the guns are silent around Rahim's position this day, but it is not always quiet. The ground is littered with spent shells. A shipping container beside his position is full of bullet holes and its steel sides are bowed outward - it held a cache of ammunition that exploded when the Taliban struck during one of its previous incursions.

Rahim has heard news that the Americans are attacking the Taliban to punish the regime for harboring Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in last month's terrorist attacks. But he and his comrades have seen no evidence of that here, a short drive from the Shamali Plain where U.S. jets are making daily strikes on frontline Taliban positions.

A typical militiaman spends 10 of every 30 days at home. Rahim is assigned to various frontline posts in the hills around Riobi Salang for 10 days, then works 10 days in rear positions, where the duty is more relaxed. After that, he gets to live in his own house and work in his fields.

The fortifications are beefed up when it gets dark. "During the day, we go to work," Rahim said. "At night, we go to our posts."

In an emergency, everyone pitches in. "If they attack, we drop our tools and grab our guns and run to the front," Abdul Latif said. "We are very close to the front, so we can rush there quickly to defend it."

Back in the village, after a quick trot through the trench and a return walk down the mined road, the sense of serenity returns.

It is quiet except for the sounds of farmers urging on teams of oxen and the splash of the Gorband River as it plunges over rocks. A cow noses through the crisp, dry corn stalks looking for stray kernels.

The colors are muted: brown houses, gray rock, leaves the color of straw falling from the fruit and almond trees. It is all subdued except for a single plot of brilliant red geraniums growing next to the river - a public meeting point where villagers come to exchange news of the war and updates on their crops.

In a few weeks' time, when the frigid winter winds cut through the canyon, the people in Riobi Salang will dig up the geraniums and take the plants to their homes, where they will provide a little indoor color during the bleak winter.

Next spring, they will replant them by the river, and start the cycle once more. home page   
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