Peace with puritanical tyranny Taliban: For residents of Afghanistan, war has given way to fear, imposed by the Islamic movement that often kills or maims violators in public ceremonies.

Sun Journal

November 04, 1998|By Dexter Filkins | Dexter Filkins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Hotel Intercontinental, gem of a ruined city, exudes a medieval charm.

The lobby walls surrendered their photos and portraits to the Taliban religious police two years ago. The drinking and dancing that drew sultans and kings have been replaced by ice water and prayer. At night, the breeze wafts into the Pamir Supper Club through a hole made by a missile, the gap framing a city of twinkling lights and curfew calm.

"The Taliban took everything," says Sher Ahmed, the sad-eyed manager of food and beverages. "But they brought the fighting to an end."

Peace has come to Afghanistan with a puritanical touch. After nine years of civil war, the soldiers of the Taliban religious army have tamed the cities and conquered the countryside, bringing this nation a measure of order and quietude it has not known in a quarter-century.

The price of peace has been tyranny and fear, imposed by an Islamic movement so extreme that those who violate its ways are often killed or maimed in public ceremonies. Members of the Taliban militia patrol the cities with switches and whips, dispersing crowds and snooping for dissent.

The onset of calm has given rise to the first signs of discontent, often expressed at the risk of arrest or death. Couples complain that their daughters are prohibited from attending school. Many women, their identities cloaked behind mandatory tentlike burkas, are beginning to publicly question a system that forbids them from working, reading or walking the streets alone.

"It is like a death," says Mariam, her face invisible behind a full-length shroud. Once a professor of Persian language, Mariam had to surrender her job when the Taliban took control of the city of Herat. She offers only her middle name. She fears for her life.

The public executions at the Kabul Sports Stadium have become an almost weekly ritual.

"Please, I beg you, spare my son's life," cries Abdul Mubin, father of the condemned man, exercising his final chance to seek absolution from the victim's family.

"He killed my son, and I will not forgive him," answers Ahmad Noor, whose son was murdered in an irrigation dispute. "I will never forgive him."

The warm-up act is an amputation. A group of Taliban surgeons, wearing green hoods and white surgical masks, crouches around a man named Ali Shah, convicted of stealing four watches and the equivalent of $50, and removes his right hand. One of the doctors tosses the bleeding body part into the grass.

Shah, sedated but still conscious, is carried away on the bed of a red Toyota pickup truck.

The mood tightens. Taliban guards carrying switches thrash a pack of filthy orphans who have tried to sneak into the stadium. A voice crackles into the loudspeaker: "In revenge, there is life."

The condemned man, Atiqullah, is seated cross-legged at the far end of the football field, blindfolded. One of the surgeons hands a Kalashnikov to the murder victim's brother.

The crowd goes silent. The brother crouches and takes aim. "In revenge, there is life," the voice says.

The brother fires into Atiqullah's head. Atiqullah lingers motionless for a second, then collapses in a heap. A groan escapes from the audience.

The brother stands over Atiqullah, aims and fires again. The body lies still. Then the brother walks around his victim, crouches and fires a final shot. Spectators rush onto the field as the two men, avenger and condemned, are carried away in separate trucks.

A spectator, who asks not to be identified, explains that most Afghans do not share such enthusiasm for the public executions but that they fill the Kabul sports stadium Fridays because there is little else to do.

"In America, you have television and movies -- the cinema," he says. "Here, there is only this."

Away from the execution ground, Mullah Mohammed Hassan, a senior Taliban leader, is perplexed. "I don't know what we have done to earn the enmity of so many countries," he says. "What have we done?"

Hassan offers a bit of history to justify the Taliban's harsh regime: Afghanistan's glorious victory in 1989, ending 10 years of Soviet occupation, soured when the many factions of freedom fighters turned on one another. Anarchy was loosed and Afghanistan was destroyed. Every street corner became an opportunity for one of the militias to set up a checkpoint, where residents were often forced to pay bribes and turn over their daughters and wives.

"We emerged to restore order and peace to the country," says Hassan, who lost a leg and pinky finger during the war against the Soviets.

To answer the anarchy, the Taliban imposed a series of sweeping rules that touched every aspect of daily life. Men must wear their mustaches just above their lips and their bangs neatly trimmed along their foreheads. Women must don burkas that cover the entire body and provide only a screenlike vent in front the eyes.

If a woman refuses?

"Maybe we beat her with a stick," says Mullah Mohammed Wali, minister for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.

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