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
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The Independent Online
"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.