Her voice breaking with grief, a woman in a blue Afghan burqa was pleading with a bored prison guard for news of her son-in-law jailed four days ago. Repulsed from the gate of the Third Intelligence Department in central Kabul, where political prisoners are often held, she crouched shuddering against a brick wall.
"I don't why they arrested Ibrahim in his workshop five days ago," she said. "My name is Sima and I am a widow. I have to work – I was cleaning a stove before I came here – and I could not come to the prison before now to find out why he is jail."
In the past the prison of the Third Intelligence Department, near the UN compound, has been considered a dangerous place to be in, but so far the Northern Alliance, amazed at the speed of its victory, is not known to have started executing political opponents.
The rapid collapse of the Taliban over the past month means that Afghanistan is full of new prisoners and ex-prisoners. A bewildered group of about 20 men, their few belongings wrapped in blankets, were sitting at the entrance of the presidential palace in Kabul yesterday. They explained that they were all prisoners of the Taliban who had been in jail in Kandahar for many years and were now in desperate need of help to get back home.
"I am from Fariab province – in north-west Afghanistan – and I was captured in a battle four years ago," said Addai Nazar, a short man with frightened eyes. "I have been in prison ever since, and all I want to do is go home."
The defeat of the Taliban means that jailers and prisoners have sometimes changed places, but most of the former Taliban fighters surrendered on terms under which they give up their arms and cars in return for an amnesty.
Some of the most notorious prisons in Kabul are now empty. On an arid plain east of the city is the notorious Pul-i-Charkhi jail, designed by a West German company in the 1970s, and the scene of some 10,000 executions under the communists. It is a grim place, the triangular grey cement buildings with long, heavily barred windows, surrounded by an outer perimeter wall.
Inside some cells still contain the abandoned belongings of Taliban prisoners who escaped as soon as they realised their guards had fled.
Ordinary Afghans are exceptionally well-informed about conditions in their country's jails because so many of them have been imprisoned over the past quarter of a century. Food and heating in Pul-i-Charkhi was considered good. This was in contrast with the ancient Dai Mazang prison, on the other side of Kabul, which was famous for its snakes and scorpions.
Ali Ahmed Safi, a medical student jailed because the Taliban wrongly believed that his relatives worked for the Northern Alliance, believes that the worst prison in Kabul was the provincial remand prison. "The water was bad, but you had to drink it and there were only eight toilets for 525 prisoners," he recalls.
The Taliban insisted that everybody prayed – hardly necessary in Afghanistan – but he says they did not realise that the prisoners were sending up fervent prayers for an American bomb to strike the Taliban's security headquarters.
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