Even before the bombs fell, Farmar was a bleak and lifeless spot. Until you turn the corner into the camp where the Arabs lived, it is hard to believe that it could be made any more desolate. Twenty minutes from Jalalabad, the irrigated fields and fruit trees give way to a low rolling landscape of stones and dust. No Hollywood director could have devised a more appropriate place for a terrorist training ground.
The first clues are the tanks – four of them in a row, neatly parked beneath dusty trees. A detachment of anti-Taliban mujahedin, who arrived here on Thursday, sleepily wave us down a rough drive, past the ruins of low concrete buildings.
The smashed shell of a mosque is visible to the left; the cinder surface is strewn with ragged yellow objects. But the real spectacle lies to the right that – a graveyard of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida war effort, and a demonstration of the deadly power of US weapons.
Neatly arranged in rough lines, sprawled across an area the size of several football pitches, are 200 pieces of the Taliban arsenal: Soviet tanks, some intact, others dismembered into rusty pieces; khaki trucks mounted with multiple rocket launchers; and great yellow earth-moving engines, their sides peppered with bullet holes.
Until six weeks ago, this was the military headquarters of the Taliban's 81st Division, and the training ground for what Afghans call "the Arabs" – the Pakistani, Saudi, Chechen, Indonesian and Filipino forces of al-Qa'ida. To the local people, it is still "the Osama camp".
"They lived in the military headquarters," says a man with a henna-dyed ginger beard who is walking along a road near by. "Sometimes they moved into houses that were empty, and the Taliban lived alongside them. They never spoke to us. I think they weren't allowed to. But we could tell from their faces they were Arabs."
Tens of thousands of these holy warriors have entered Afghanistan for training in places such as this during the six years of Taliban rule. But on 8 October, the second day of the American bombing campaign, an intense air attack closed the camp for good.
Local people say that most of the inhabitants of the camp had retreated to the mountains, which are visible at the edges of the low plain, by the time the American aircraft appeared overhead.
The tanks that sit outside the camp beneath the trees were parked there deliberately to conceal them. Many of the corpses in the tank graveyard look as if they were out of commission even before the bombs fell. But six weeks on, it is easy to imagine what it must have been like to have been under that night's bombardment.
The various forms of American munitions have left their individual signatures, and the earth is riddled with menacing bits of ironware. A long barracks room with concrete walls has had its ceiling split along the middle by the impact of a bomb. Outside, two trees lean precariously over a crater, 12ft deep and 20ft across. But the little yellow objects, scattered randomly across the entire site, are the most sinister and dangerous token of the retribution that fell upon Farmar.
A fortnight ago in Pakistan, a UN de-mining expert explained to me the devastating effects of cluster bombs – so it was an unpleasant surprise to be standing a few yards from one that hadn't exploded.
They are dropped inside a larger bomb that splits open high in the air, dispersing 202 bomblets, each floating to earth beneath small parachutes. These curious triangular pieces of nylon are also scattered on the ground.
The bomblets are designed to explode on impact, with a blast that can penetrate a tank, and which scatters heat and shrapnel over a 25-metre radius. But only nine out of 10 actually go off. Bombs of the unexploded tenth are in evidence all around the camp. They are an alluring bright yellow, which makes them easy to spot but fatally attractive to young children.
Then there are the munitions abandoned by the retreating Taliban and Arabs: a tank's shell poking out of the earth, a cupboard with piles of receipts on one shelf, and two rocket propelled grenades on the other. Compared with those inside the camp, the tanks parked under the trees are in good condition and their bellies are still filled with live shells.
The camp shows little sign of human life. The liberating mujahedin found no bodies and everyone else appears to have escaped. The mujahedin commander says that 700 or 800 men were stationed here and that they have retreated to the hills where an anti-Taliban force is preparing to attack them. "They trained here," he says. "They learned how to make bombs, conduct guerrilla warfare, how to use different weapons – rifles, tanks, artillery."
The papers in the ruined office buildings are mundane and uninformative: account books; loose receipts for the disbursement of funds to Taliban soldiers. Among them is just one document with a human face – an exercise book formerly owned by a young Talib named Said Nazam. Said was an enthusiastic student of English. At first glance, his notebook paints a disturbing picture of his preoccupation, starting with a long list of male and female reproductive organs. "Scrotum," begins one entry. "Epididymis. Vas Deserens [sic]."
But all is made clear on the next page, where Said described himself: "Student of agriculture faculty in Nangarhar University". The genitals in question are those of farm animals. "Dog is fast than sheeps," he observes at one point and, his spelling slipping further: "I want from you a Beuteaful Sheeps."
His religious allegiances are also on display. "Our lesson highlight is Islam in world I am a poor man's. I want from Almighty God money for helping with Poor Mens and Knowledge About Islam and Science."
Amid all the brutal hardware and destruction, it is a shock to be reminded that for all their violence and cruelty, the volunteers were poor men in a wretchedly poor country, and victims of 22 years of war.Reuse content