Watching the war from Kabul's rooftops

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The Independent Online

Mohamed saw the "Arabs" of Kabul leaving at dawn the day after the suicide attacks in New York and Washington, with their families and their guns.

"They were taking their possessions out of their homes with their wives and children and they were in a hurry,'' the 63-year-old driver says. "I had just heard about the attacks on Iranian radio and I was driving around Kabul very early on 12 September and they were everywhere leaving: Taliban and their families, Arabs and their people.

"The Arabs had Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. One of their trucks had a tarpaulin over the top so no one could see what was inside.''

Shirahmed – whose surname, like Mohamed's, has been withheld so he cannot be identified – was in Kabul to sell the 10-roomed family home he built 19 years ago with his own hands. He saw the exodus of the "Arabs" and went to call a friend from the central telephone office. "There was an Arab there trying to get through on the phone to Sudan and four other Arabs in a car outside," he says. "They were shouting and angry. The man couldn't get through to Khartoum. They left at speed in their car. All the big Taliban families went the same day.''

Mohamed noticed that the Arab fighters were wearing Taliban clothes, complete with black turbans, but their children wore white caps with a rectangle cut into the front. "That is the way the children dress in Kandahar,'' he says.

The Arabs fleeing their suburban apartments in Shahrenov, Kalfatullah, Parwaneseh and Merken knew what was coming. Everyone in Kabul knew. "I listened to the Persian service of the BBC and Voice of America and to Iranian radio and the moment I heard about New York and that it might involve Osama [bin Laden], I thought there would be a war in Afghanistan,'' says Shirahmed, who is in his sixties. "That morning, everyone rushed to the shops to buy food and livestock and prices went very high. Later, when the American attacks started, they went very low. No one thought about Osama. They had their own problems.''

Listening to the two men – Shirahmed now a permanent refugee in Pakistan, Mohamed waiting for Pakistani permission to return home to Kabul – it is clear that a kind of frightening normality settled over the Afghan capital in the month after the attacks in America.

Pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters were seen all over Kabul. Mohamed remembers that the Taliban carried out one of their bloody punishments on 22 September: the amputation of the left hand of three men for theft and rape.

"It was the last of the punishments,'' he says. "Once the American attack started on 7 October, the Taliban wanted to be very friendly with us. They would say: 'OK, we are all brother Muslims, we have to be united. We will rebuild the country. Allah will help us.' But people didn't believe them – they knew the Taliban very well. They knew the Taliban's links with Pakistan were cut. They were all alone now."

Neither Shirahmed nor Mohamed are Pashtuns, so you would not expect them to like the largely Pashtun Taliban. Even so, their memories of the American bombardment seem extraordinarily clear and precise. Both remember how, for the first three days, US aircraft would start their attacks at 9pm. Shirahmed watched the flash of explosions of the first raid from the roof of his brother's home in Khaikhana.

"The first we heard was the roar of an aircraft and anti- aircraft fire from the Taliban side about two miles from the airport," he says. "Everyone was frightened, but they were also happy because they thought this would change the Taliban government.

"But I think the Americans have made their biggest mistake: if they want to get the Taliban or Osama, that's fine. But they don't have to kill innocent people. The Pashtuns were very angry, although many had left Kabul before the attacks."

The American aircraft would bomb their targets every 10 minutes for three hours, one after another, "one aircraft at a time in the sky'', according to Mohamed. Shirahmed noticed how, after four days, the Americans appeared to open a "second stage" – attacking at 9pm, breaking off after a few hours, then resuming at 3am.

"So many people went to the roof of their homes to see the bombing, it was like a cinema show,'' he says. "On the third night, the Americans bombed the medium wave transmitter tower at Yekatut and Radio Shariat [the Taliban station] went off the air. Nobody listened to it anyway."

But Mohamed did. "The Taliban radio told us to stay in our homes and not to leave Kabul. They said 'everything is normal and Taliban morale is very high and we are preparing to resist the Americans.' [They] started to act very kindly towards us. Most of the checkpoints disappeared. The prices came down. Ninety-eight kilograms of flour before the attacks cost 1,600,000 Afghanis; afterwards, it went down to 750,000.

"People were happy to think the Taliban might collapse because most of them had no jobs. When the Americans bombed, officials were told not to go to work, which meant they were not paid – and that made the Taliban even more unpopular.''

Four days into the bombings, Shirahmed heard the television transmitter tower at Kohe Asmai was under attack. "I heard that women and children were killed near the airport but saw no bodies or ambulances.''

Mohamed, living in the centre of Kabul, left his wife and family late last week on routine work for the charity in Peshawar for which he works. At the border at Torkham, the Taliban – suddenly friendly towards non-Pashtuns – pleaded successfully with the frontier guards to let Mohamed cross. He is now trapped in Pakistan: he has not been able to return across the border.

Shirahmed, having sold his family home, left in near misery over the mountains south of Torkham. "I built that house myself and four of my five children were born there," he says. "It had a basement and two storeys and a little garden and we were happy, and now we are sad. Now seven members of my family live in one room in Peshawar and we pay $40 a month in rent.''

As for Mohamed, he is thinking of the winter. "If the American attacks continue, the people will be in a terrible situation,'' he says. "The roads will be closed, the snow is coming, there will be no food, no warmth. It will be a catastrophe for us.''

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