Out of hiding they come, to return to their ravaged town

War on terrorism: Front line
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The central Afghan city of Bamiyan fell to American-backed opposition forces after a two-hour gun battle, revealing a scene of complete devastation.

American air support backed up the ground forces of the Hezbi Wahabat, who mostly go to war on horseback. The ferocity of their attack, timed to coincide with the assault on Kabul, forced the Taliban to withdraw eastwards. There was sporadic gunfire throughout the day, but by the evening Bamiyan was secure.

Apart from the mosque, and a school which the Taliban have been using as barracks, every building in the town was destroyed during the Taliban occupation.

Ahmad, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was here throughout the occupation. He said that every day was terrible. "The Taliban burnt everything and killed all our people.'' Apart from a few refugees living in former monks' caves near where the giant 1,500-year-old Buddhas blown up by the Taliban once stood, there are few people left.

In the mountains near Bamiyan I found some townspeople beginning to make their way home from exile. It was an almost biblical scene. They had their few belongings packed on the back of mules, with little clothing to protect them from the severe cold at a height above 4,000 metres.

The Taliban persecuted the Hazaras, the majority of the population here, because they are Shia Muslims. They have completed several bursts of ethnic cleansing almost on a Bosnian scale – including one series of massacres earlier this year. Investigators from Human Rights Watch went to several villages and in each one dozens of men had been killed.

The town of Yakowlang was one of the hardest hit. The Taliban deliberately burnt it to the ground before being pushed out earlier this year.

Like Bamiyan, every shop in a substantial bazaar area has been destroyed. Sacks of food from international aid organisations are now the only things available in the town, at the centre of a desperately poor region. The author is a BBC correspondent.