A Shaky Sense of Freedom

Times Staff Writer

After a little more than three months living in a rundown house in the Pakistani city of Quetta, Fida Mohammed heard the news out of Afghanistan and decided that it was time to go home.

So the 56-year-old carpenter loaded his truck with 13 relatives ranging over three generations and moved back to Kandahar. Neighbors welcomed the family home to its sprawling mud-brick compound nestled in a warren of alleys near the gates of the southern Afghan city.

"When the [U.S.] bombing started, I decided to leave Kandahar because I wanted to protect my family," the patriarch explained, standing in the doorway while his three sons and their children carried clothes, mattresses and other belongings into the house. "We now have peace and stability in Afghanistan, so that is why I decided to come back."

According to U.N. estimates, about 10,000 people have returned to the Kandahar area in the last 10 days, a figure that refugee experts believe will increase considerably.

The flow of returnees from Pakistan is one of the most visible signs that Kandahar--for seven years the home base of the fundamentalist Taliban regime--is a city on the rebound. It is shedding its fear and returning to a more normal rhythm after the swift and chaotic, but generally bloodless, change to the post-Taliban era.

So far it is a tenuous peace. Pockets of Taliban sympathy remain in the back alleys, bazaars and surrounding countryside. Residents seem frightened by gunmen in the streets who have no clearly defined authority or discipline. There have been instances of looting and firing of weapons. Last week, a gunman wounded a child who had dared to upbraid him for eating before dusk during one of the last days of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

In the first mass gathering of Kandaharis since the changeover, the preacher at the Taliban-built Eidgah Mosque sought to reassure the 25,000 worshipers spread out in neat tendrils on the dun-colored earth: "The Taliban government is finished, and now the government of the moujahedeen has come."

But it is the details that count. People as yet are not sure who is who and what is what as the new regime begins to take shape.

Every day has brought surprises since the Taliban's Dec. 7 surrender here to moujahedeen working in league with U.S. and Northern Alliance forces.

The electricity comes on. The new governor orders civilians to stop carrying guns. Music is now legal, and tapes and tape players rushed in from Pakistan go on sale in the bazaar. And photographers--not allowed to take pictures during Taliban days--suddenly pop up and do a brisk trade using box cameras on the sidewalks around Martyrs' Square.

By the end of the first week, U.S. Army, Marine and Navy Seabee troops and British SAS commandos were seen moving about on various errands--neutralizing land mines, setting up checkpoints, looking for intelligence on Al Qaeda. The brave among the public sometimes wave in welcome.

But it is clear that not everyone in the city likes the changes. Black-turbaned men glower menacingly from many corners and turn away angrily when approached by foreigners. And at least one armed Al Qaeda pocket remains. It is a room in a hospital where nine slightly wounded and armed foreign fighters hold sway, terrorizing the staff and threatening to blow themselves up if they are approached.

A Talib's View of What's Happening

A Talib walking on the street, recognizable by his distinctive white turban, agreed to discuss his view of the events.

"Mullah [Mohammed] Omar is still my leader," said Mullah Sayod Rasul, a 25-year-old with clear blue eyes and light hair who fought last month in the battle for Kunduz and says he lost his brother Mohammed, 18, to American bombs there. When the order to retreat came, Rasul walked two days, without food, before he was able to catch a ride home to Kandahar.

Now he is embittered at the new government in Kandahar under an anti-Taliban commander, Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, whose troops raced into the city Dec. 7.

"They have forgotten Islam," Rasul said, and allow shaving of beards, women without veils, cinemas and video shops, among other things. As Rasul spoke, a young boy walked by happily, his purple kite dancing on a string.

Rasul's eyes, already ringed with traditional makeup, grew a little darker. "We don't like that, either," he said.

For Rasul, the Taliban's fall is a passing phenomenon. "Ninety percent of the people support us," he claimed. "Only now they are afraid to say so."

Yet he seemed nervous, afraid of the new authorities. He obediently took his Kalashnikov rifle to the governor's palace Thursday and turned it in to Shirzai's people. They questioned him closely about whether he had any more weapons at home. He said he had none, and for now, it is not an issue.

"Mullah Omar has told us that as long as the Americans are here, we will not kill. But when the Americans leave, we will start ambush attacks."

Kandahar, once renowned for its fruit orchards, was an ancient rest stop for camel caravans wending their way between Persia and India. Alexander the Great and his army camped here in the 4th century BC. A shrine in the middle of town holds a cloak believed to have belonged to the prophet Muhammad.

As a crossroads, Kandahar has seen conquerors come and go, like the seasons, in almost every generation. That may be why residents are quickly acclimating themselves to the new, pro-American regime.

Zaher Mohammed, 30, co-proprietor of the Ummet Photography shop, doesn't expect to see the Taliban back in power.

"There must not be any Taliban in the new government, not one," he insisted as passersby gathered around his front window to look at the once-forbidden posters he has put there. Among them were a bare-chested Bruce Lee and pro wrestler Razor Ramon, a.k.a. "the Bad Guy."

"These past seven years we were like in prison," Mohammed explained. "We could not touch our beards--they would take us to prison if we did. We could not listen to music. We could not ever miss prayers.

"I myself took one picture showing the person's whole body, and I was kept in prison for 15 days for just that one photo. We were always afraid."

He saw the Taliban as grasping and blasphemous rather than pure and holy. His brother Daoud, 23, was falsely accused of stealing money and had his hand chopped off under the Taliban's rigid code, Mohammed said. The punishment, he said, was carried out without observing Islamic law, which requires that there be no question of guilt. He believes that his brother's hand was amputated so quickly because an Arab paid the equivalent of $4,000 to film the punishment, a kind of snuff movie to entertain friends back home.

Shirzai's government has abolished such inhumane penalties and promised to observe human rights. One of its first acts was to free 1,600 to 1,800 political prisoners from the central prison. Its other priority has been getting guns out of the hands of everyone except the fighters working for the city's two main commanders--Shirzai and the acting military commander, Mullah Naquibullah. (Prime Minister-designate Hamid Karzai brokered a peace between them and also has his own troops in the town.)

Two Cousins at the Center of Power

Two cousins--one a naturalized American and one who talks like one--also are at the center of what power there is, working out of the former royal palace now used by the governor.

Khalid Pushtoon, 42, of Rio Rancho, N.M., and his cousin, Mohammed Yusef Pushtoon, 50, of Quetta are respectively Shirzai's spokesman and senior advisor. Unlike the dour, grim tribesmen who surround them, they smile, and phrases like "How's it going, guys?" come easily.

Khalid, who lived in the Los Angeles area for 15 years, said he went to Pakistan only a few months ago out of a sense of duty to his native Afghanistan. He is an accountant by training, and Mohammed Yusef an architect, but they became warriors against the Taliban, fighting at the front lines.

They say they want to create a modern, democratic Afghanistan. They joined their kinsman, Shirzai, and, like him, are supporting a role for Mohammad Zaher Shah, the exiled Afghan monarch, in rebuilding the country.

"We have not achieved much yet, unfortunately," Mohammed Yusef said. "But the highest achievement so far is the security. Civilian people right now are surrendering their guns to the police, and in three or four days we will start to conduct searches to confiscate illegal weapons."

The next priorities are to provide basic services, such as medicine and education, he said. Schooling for Afghans "is not only needed, it is totally fundamental."

Khalid said the thousands of weapons collected in only a few days show Shirzai's passion to restore a sense of security. A series of police checkpoints being established, including a roving checkpoint, also is intended to root out remaining Taliban leaders and foreign fighters in Al Qaeda.

Khalid acknowledged that Taliban sympathizers remain in the city, but he said they are an uneducated minority. "They are blind, they see only Islam," he said.

He also fretted about immediate practical needs, such as finding the cash to pay Shirzai's new retainers. "If we cannot pay them, they might go with someone else," Khalid acknowledged.

Nevertheless, Khalid believes that the people of Kandahar have in their grasp a different and brighter future than they knew under the Taliban and the years of war before that.

A glimpse of that possible future came during Eid al-Fitr, the three-day feast that follows Ramadan. Children played joyfully on merry-go-rounds. People watched public performances of music. Fathers lined up to buy kulcha pazi, special Eid cookies that bakers made nonstop in outdoor wood-fired ovens. Police handed out the new national flag, hastily stitched together from red, black and green cloth. A city that rarely smiled was letting down its turban.

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