Vigil honours the healing qualities of Afghanistan's al-Qa'ida cemetery

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There are new graves at the al-Qa'ida cemetery, the shrine to the "martyrs" who had died fighting in the US-led invasion four years ago. The fresh mounds of earth were dug for those killed in the ferocious fighting of the recent months as war returned to Afghanistan.

At this desolate place, with red dust swirling around jihadist flags, three old women sit rocking under a shelter, watching families who have come to pray and taste salt kept in dishes over the graves for their supposed miraculous healing qualities.

The women have been keeping vigil almost every day. Bibi Shah, 58, is one of them, and she insists: "I have seen a man who was crippled take the salt and then he was better. Hundreds of people come here, from all over Afghanistan and other countries. These men buried here are true Muslims respected by everyone."

Bibi Shah had been coming here for the past three years. She and her companions receive alms from those who come to visit. "My husband is dead and I am childless so there is no one to look after me. So I come here. There are a lot of new graves here, there are a lot of people getting killed. "

Twenty of those deaths have come from seven suicide bombings in nine days in which British marines, Canadian troops and American security contractors had been targeted on the main route to the airport, known as Baghdad Highway to local people. The vast majority of the victims have been Afghan civilians. There was another one killed and five others injured in a bombing yesterday.

The civilians are buried in their own plots. But it is the graves of the fighters which draw the largest crowds. Naqibullah Ali is taking the salt from one of them in the hope that it will heal his withered hand. "I know this can cure people," he says. "The dead here have been blessed by Allah."

Western people are not welcome here. "We used to throw stones at them. Now if they come we shall cut their throats," said 16-year-old Ali Waleed, waving a knife. This was bravado, but the killings are real enough. Three people I had interviewed six months ago, all associated with women's rights, have been assassinated. They included Safia Amajan, the most senior female rights activist to be murdered in Afghanistan.

Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and they are desperate to wrest control of this symbol of Pashtun nationhood. They emerge in Kandahar at night when the city effectively shuts down. There was a drive-by shooting outside my hotel during the first night here, aimed at a police post, a fairly regular occurrence, as is the mortaring of the Nato base on the outskirts of the city.

The place is tense. The very few foreign aid workers stay behind high walls and armed guards and the police at checkpoints are on edge. Safia Amajan had repeatedly requested guards after receiving threats. She was shot down while waiting for a taxi. Her husband and son have fled Kandahar after their home was sprayed with machine-gun fire soon after Safia's murder. Commander Malalai Kakar, the highest-ranking female police officer in the south, is also on the Taliban death list. She was a friend of Ms Amajan. "I saw her after she was killed," she says. "My heart broke. But there are lots of problems in Kandahar. We have caught a lot of the Taliban, but there are others, they come from across the Pakistani border."

But there is fertile ground for Taliban recruitment much nearer at hand. At the Zhar Dost refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, residents complained that they were not getting enough food and the scant medical care was being scaled back. "The men are angry because they have no jobs and they see their families go hungry,"said Tahir Daoud, a frail man in his sixties. "The Talibs come and offer them money so some of them go. Many of them do not come back, they are killed."

Standing beside the Arab graves, 25-year-old Bari Ali Ahmed spoke of how the infidels had "corrupted" the government of Hamid Karzai and must be driven from the land. "Because of the infidels we have alcohol and prostitution in our country. They are oppressing our people and it is the duty of good Muslims to take up the struggle."