Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 4, 2001
Staying away from the Taliban - or trying to

At War With Terror

FEYZABAD, Afghanistan - Dr. Mohammed Nasser Foushanji and his family have been through a few close scrapes with the Taliban over the years - he has been shot in the leg and four times he has had to flee the advancing Taliban troops.

But the peril he fears now may be the most unnerving.

He and his wife recently sent two of their children to the capital, Kabul, to study with relatives. They have not heard from them since Afghanistan became the target of America's wrath for sheltering Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. Now they fear their family might become casualties if U.S. bombs are aimed at Kabul.

"We're worried about the danger of attack in Kabul," said Foushanji, 41, an orthopedic surgeon who earned the Taliban's wrath by treating soldiers of the opposition Northern Alliance. "There is no way to contact them. This is a big problem for us. Every night we are thinking about them."

They're not the only Afghans fretting about an expected American attack. Even in this opposition stronghold, where Afghans initially were thrilled at the prospect of a U.S. assault against the despised Taliban regime, the reality has sunk in that most families here have some relative who might be in harm's way.

"Almost every family here has relatives living in Kabul," said Christophe Dubied, administrator of the Doctors Without Borders office here. "People here are resentful of the Taliban, but if there are civilian casualties, then all Afghans are brothers."

The sentiment here in Feyzabad, the capital of the opposition Northern Alliance, might be useful to American military planners evaluating potential targets in Afghanistan: If U.S. bombs go astray and kill civilians, it may do as much to unify the fractious Afghans as the Soviet Union's invasion two decades ago. That turned into a 10-year war before the Soviets pulled out.

"People don't like to see a person from another country kill an Afghan," said Foushanji, sitting in the living room of a house where he is staying as a guest. "It's not easy to accept."

Under most circumstances, Foushanji and his wife would be natural allies of any enemy of the Taliban.

In a nation with one of the world's largest refugee populations after 23 years of civil war, Foushanji is a modern nomad, moving constantly to avoid the Taliban's rigid rule. His story is a case study of life in a nation unhinged by the crosswinds of a fierce ethnic and religious storm.

Born in the western city of Herat, Foushanji was no supporter of the Soviet occupation. His father, the former security chief for ousted King Mohammad Zahir Shah, was blackballed by communist authorities because he had an American education. A brother was killed fighting Soviet troops. Foushanji himself was jailed for two months, suspected of being disloyal to the Taliban. In medical school, he specialized in war surgery, and in one of his first assignments, he took a bullet in the leg from the mujaheddin Islamic warriors fighting a jihad against the Soviet-installed government.

After the Soviets left in 1989 and Afghanistan descended into a war among rival mujaheddin factions, Foushanji contacted Ahmed Shah Massoud, a powerful military commander whose faction came to power in the Islamic revolution of 1992. Massoud, a charismatic leader who later was the chief of the Northern Alliance military forces, was assassinated last month, two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under Massoud, Foushanji got a job in Herat, in western Afghanistan. He worked there for six months until the town was overrun by the Taliban, fanatical Islamic students who wanted to purge Afghanistan of all infidel influence.

"Since I knew Massoud, I had a big problem with the Taliban," Foushanji said. He told the Taliban he was going to visit his home district, but instead escaped on foot through the battle lines to Kabul. It was the first time he left everything behind to the Taliban.

Rejoined again by his family in Kabul, Foushanji worked at the capital's largest hospital until 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul and outlawed everything except the strictest form of Islam. Kabul, once an open city with nightclubs and theaters and European influences, overnight became a place where men were forced to wear long beards, women were forbidden to work, and girls were banned from schools.

Foushanji went to the market and spent $100 for four tent-like burqas for his wife, his mother and his sisters, who had never before worn the veiled garments.

"I hate the burqa," said Foushanji's wife, Roqia Nasser, dressed elegantly in a green dress as she sat in the privacy of her house. "If I were king for one day, I would collect all the burqas and burn them. Yet I am obligated to wear it."

Foushanji worked with the Taliban for two months after the takeover of Kabul. "Once again I had a problem," he said. "The Taliban wanted me to point out the houses of former generals. I told them I am not a spy, I'm a doctor." So he left again, this time for the northern city of Taloqan, held by his old friend, the opposition commander Massoud.

Taloqan, where Foushanji worked in a military hospital repairing war casualties, was attacked in 1998. Foushanji and others insist the attack was so well regimented the battle was surely organized by the Taliban's sponsors, Pakistan. The devastation was horrendous.

"We only had four people in the hospital," he said. "We received hundreds of casualties from shelling and aerial bombings. I remember one family lost seven people killed in one day. I saw the people fighting the Taliban."

When Taloqan fell, Foushanji escaped once again with his family. But less than a year later, Massoud retook Taloqan and invited the surgeon to return. He did, but eventually he was forced to leave the city again last year when the Taliban recaptured the city after a two-month battle.

Once again, he fled without most of his possessions, taking only some clothing and two medical books - one on war surgery, the other on orthopedic surgery. "To move to so many places without things is very difficult," he said.

Now Foushanji and his family live in Feyzabad, one of the last cities buried so deeply in the mountainous northeast corner of Afghanistan that is is considered safe from Taliban attack.

"This is the last city," he said. "If the Taliban comes, I will have to dive in the river to escape."

Now he has taken on an administrative job at Mercy Corps International, an American humanitarian organization that distributes clothing and other non-food aid to people displaced by the war. He is also working at Feyzabad Hospital and has a private practice on the side. He and his wife live in a borrowed room, decorated with posters from the movie Titanic, which is inexplicably popular in this landlocked country.

A few months ago they sent their two older sons, Ansar, 12, and Esar, 11, to Kabul to study at the home of their grandfather. (Children and women can cross Taliban lines without rousing much suspicion.) The boys were scheduled to come home early last month, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raised alarms of an imminent American attack and the Taliban cut off all communications from Kabul and expelled humanitarian organizations.

For now they are left with their 5-year-old son Safar and plenty of worries. "Sometimes I hear the door," said Roqia Nasser. "I think they will walk in. It's very nervous for me." home page   
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