Hearts and minds lost to the camps

JALALABAD DAYS: Robert Fisk on how the strict law of exile has been imposed on the Afghan people

"Fly to Jalalabad?" the travel agent in Dubai asked me. "You have to contact Magic Carpet." He was right. A friendly Lebanese told me to show up at Sharjah airport at 8.30 next morning but the carpet turned out to be a 30-year-old 727 from Afghanistan's collapsing airline, Ariana, a passenger jet cruelly converted into a freight-carrier, one of a host of pariah aircraft from Tadjikistan and other Muslim republics that clutter the runways of the run-down emirate.

My crew were all Afghans - bushy-bearded to a man since the Taliban ordered men to stop shaving - and did their best to make me comfortable in a lone passenger seat at the front. "Safety vest under seat," it said behind the lavatory. There was no vest. And the toilet was running with faeces, a fearful stench drifting over the cargo of ball-bearings and textiles behind me. "Don't worry, you're in safe hands," one of the crew insisted as we climbed through the turbulence, introducing me to a giant of a man who kept grinding his teeth and ringing his hands on a damp cloth. "This," he said, "is our senior flight maintenance engineer."

Over the Spinghar mountains, the engineer sniffed the smell from the toilet, entered the tiny cubicle with a ratchet and attacked the plumbing. By the time we landed on the old airstrip at Jalalabad, I was ready to contemplate the overland journey home. The immigration officer was a teenager with a Kalashnikov, so illiterate that he drew a square and a circle in my passport because he couldn't write his name. The airline crew offered me a lift on their bus into Jalalabad, the same dusty frontier town I remembered from previous visits but this time with half its population missing. There were no women. Just occasionally, I would catch sight of them, shrouded in their burkhas, sometimes holding the hands of tiny children.

The campus gates of Nangarhar University were chained shut, the pathways covered in grass, the dormitories dripping rain water. "The Taliban say they will reopen the university this week, but what's the point?" the post office clerk asked. "All the teachers have left. The women can no longer be educated. It's back to Year Zero." Not quite, of course. For the first time in years, there is no shooting in Jalalabad. The guns have been collected by the Taliban, a kind of law that has been imposed on this angry, tribal society. For the first time in years, humanitarian workers can travel around the town at night. Robberies are almost unknown. While prices are rising, at least there are now vegetables and meat in the market.

On the lawn of the hotel, two children approached me, one a 14-year-old with a pile of exercise books. In one of the books, in poor English, was a hand-written English grammar test. "Insert the cerrect [sic] voice" it said. "He ... going home. Insert: had/was/will." I gently inserted "was" and corrected "correct". Was this the new education of the Afghan poor? But at least the boys were being taught a foreign language at their pitiful school.

The Spinghar hotel used to boast an old American television set that had now been hidden in a garden shed for fear of destruction. Television sets, like videotapes and thieves, tend to end up hanging from trees. "What do you expect?" a gardener asked me near the ruins of a crumbling palace on the Kabul road. "The Taliban came from the refugee camps. They are giving us only what they had." And it dawned on me then that the new laws of Afghanistan - so anachronistic and brutal to us (and to educated Afghans) - are less an attempt at religious revival than a continuation of the camps.

For the Taliban gunmen grew up as refugees in the dirt-poor, filthy camps of Pakistan. Their 17 or 18 years of life were spent in blind poverty, deprived of all education and entertainment, imposing their own deadly punishments, their mothers and sisters kept in subservience as the men decided how to fight their foreign oppressors on the other side of the border, their only diversion the long and obsessive reading of the Koran.

And so - now in possession of most of Afghanistan - the Taliban have come here, many of them for the first time in their lives, not to rebuild a country they do not remember, but to re-create their refugee camps on a larger scale. Hence there is to be no education. No television. Women must stay at home, just as they stayed in their tents in Peshawar. The Koran is the only diversion, the one and true path in a world in which no other was ever contemplated. Thus it was at the airport when I left; another immigration officer now, perhaps only 15, refused to stamp my passport because I had no exit visa - even though exit visas do not exist in Jalalabad. But I had broken a greater rule. I wasn't wearing a beard. The boy pointed at my chin and shook his head in admonition, a child-schoolmaster who knew wickedness when he saw it and directed me towards the old plane on the runway with something approaching contempt.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: If you are a committed Te...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style