Strategic Afghan village knows poverty, misery

Supplies smuggled across Taliban lines

War On Terrorism

October 22, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GULBAHAR, Afghanistan -- In this bustling village near the front lines of the war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, smugglers supply everything from cigarettes to shoelaces, a druggist moonlights as a member of the secret police and the ultimate source of authority is a man with a private army and the power of a feudal lord.

About half of the adult men of Gulbahar are unemployed. Children as young as 6 years old work long days in the bazaar, performing tasks that range from selling socks to hauling gasoline in jugs. Small groups of dazed-looking refugees arrive from Kabul every day to escape the American bombing.

But what is most remarkable about the village is that its poverty and misery are merely ordinary for Afghanistan. "It is a typical village in Afghanistan," said Commander Norhabib, Gulbahar's chief military and civilian authority.

Gulbahar is a patchwork of mud-brick houses climbing the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, home to 30,000 people about 18 miles from the front line. The village is strategically important because it is at the entrance to the gorge leading to the Panjshir Valley, the gateway to the Northern Alliance's largest mountain stronghold. And Panjshir is the symbolic heart of the Afghan resistance: It is the birthplace of many Northern Alliance commanders, including Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated last month.

`It is a hardship'

This village has fallen to the Taliban three times -- in 1996, 1997 and 1999. The Northern Alliance returned each time, at the cost of more lives. Gulbahar now is virtually under siege, with Taliban troops dug in to the south and mountains rising on the other three sides.

Merchants here import almost all their goods from Kabul, smuggling them through the Taliban lines. Taliban soldiers, the merchants say, demand a "duty" of about $17 for every 15 pounds of drugs. Drugs to treat dehydration from diarrhea cost $2.50, two days' pay for civil servants. Rabies is common, but no one can afford to import anti-rabies serum. Tuberculosis is spreading, but the cost of a yearlong course of drugs has risen to $150.

"It is a hardship," said Saderoddin Delaghra, owner of Gawat Pharmacy. "They are going to sell their furniture, their trees, their homes in order to buy drugs."

Delaghra is the person who knows what is happening in Gulbahar's bazaar. He knows who is sick and who is healthy, and his shop is near the intersection of the two roads to Kabul. And, he confides, he is a member of the local secret police, who regularly report on activities in town.

"I sit here and I watch what happens," he said, pointing out the window of his shop. "I see the comings and goings."

Village authority

The person in charge of the secret police, and almost everything else, is Commander Norhabib. His compound is across a bridge over the Shutel River; the bridge is made of steel from a Soviet armored personnel carrier. He received visitors in a whitewashed, tree-shaded house on the north bank.

He wore a traditional Afghan tunic and a pakol, the flat woolen cap with a rolled brim favored by Afghanistan's Tajiks. While Norhabib lounged on one arm, surrounded by subordinates and several sons, Gulbahar's residents sat with straight backs, and sought his help in settling disputes. In making decisions, he said, he consulted his military counsel and relied on the local Islamic court. But he is the council head, chief judge of the court and top general of a private army he estimates at 1,300 men. "The military is the basic pillar of this government," he said.

He is the son of a truck driver. After graduating from high school here, Norhabib studied banking at the University of Kabul. When a communist regime seized power, he joined the mujahedeen to fight the government and then, after 1979, the Soviet Union.

When the communist government fell in 1992, he joined forces with a Pashtun warlord who fought Massoud for control of Kabul. Then Norhabib switched sides and fought with Massoud. The factional fighting tore the city apart, until the Taliban drove the warlords from Kabul in 1996.

Norhabib now says he will support the Northern Alliance to the end: "I will die at the last ditch."

After the Taliban are defeated, Afghans will choose a new president and other leaders, Norhabib said. But that choice will be made as it has been done traditionally in Afghanistan, through agreements reached between chiefs and leaders, not at the ballot box. "I won't accept a democracy," he said.

Former followers

Gulbahar's madrasah, or seminary, has 320 students. Their words echo through the courtyard of a mosque as they read aloud from the Quran. Their teacher is Mullah Ubiadullah. He had welcomed the Taliban in 1996 because he believed they would instill Islamic values.

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