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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 11:57 GMT
In the wake of the Taleban
The airbase at Shindand, about 200 km south of Herat, is quite a pleasant place.
Although it is pretty derelict at the moment after everything it has been through recently, the huge compound is nicely laid out, with avenues of trees and gardens - quite an oasis in the vast, dusty desert plain where it sits.
It even has its own hospital and the area behind it must have been particularly pleasant.
Somebody, perhaps the Soviets, had built some kind of swimming pool there, though a very small one, but nicely lined with bright blue tiles and about three metres deep.
Whoever built it can hardly have imagined the use to which it would eventually be put.
One night about eight months ago - I imagine it was done at night - 12 young men were lined up on the edge of the pool, their arms pinioned behind them with strips of cloth.
They were killed with bullets in the head. Their bodies crumpled into the bottom of the empty pool. They were then covered with tonnes of earth shovelled or bulldozed in on top of them.
And that is how they were found last week, some days after the Taleban had fled the area and their mujahideen enemies had taken over.
The mujahideen knew what they were looking for - dozens of their comrades had been captured by the Taleban and taken to the base, never to be seen again.
Four bodies had already been discovered buried in a ditch, their arms also still tied behind them.
The 12 buried in the pool were located thanks to information from someone who had been on the base when it happened.
I will not even attempt to describe the horror of watching decomposed corpses being slowly unearthed, untangled and lifted out. It was simply the nastiest thing I have ever seen.
Several dozen more bodies are still being looked for. This was all part of the legacy the Taleban left behind.
Their sudden collapse and flight allowed a rare glimpse into the way they operated.
At the same airbase there were the grim cells and dungeons where prisoners were held.
There was a long, heavy wooden pole with metal eyes fixed onto it through which a rod was passed to hold feet in the position for 'bastinado' - whipping of the soles, one of the most painful forms of torture - and mediaeval leg irons to banish any thought of a sudden bid for freedom.
We came across similar implements in the centre of Herat, in a big house the Taleban had taken over as a base for their morals police - or, as they called it, a 'centre for promoting virtue and preventing vice'.
The confiscated items we found on the premises, hastily abandoned by the Taleban, told their own story about the way of life that they imposed on the people.
'Grim and joyless' life
In one room there was a pile of smashed-up television sets and radios, along with some musical instruments. Outside the back I saw a sad heap of other things deemed dangerously un-Islamic - music cassettes, playing cards, lots of cheap little plastic dolls, kites, leaflets or brochures with pictures of well-clad women on them.
None of this was arbitrary. In the same place we found a copy of the Taleban Justice Ministry's official yearbook for 2001. It codifies in black and white exactly what is prohibited.
The list of banned imports includes pork products and alcoholic drinks, naturally enough, but also human hair and wigs, billiard tables, chess boards, masks, nail varnish, fire crackers, Christmas cards and lobster, which, it explains, is a kind of animal.
And as for behaviour, there are many pages describing what should be stopped and punished.
The flying of kites is forbidden because it could be dangerous. Any shopkeeper selling the paper and string children use to make kites should have his shop closed for three days on first offence and be put in jail for ten days if he persists.
Anyone who grows his hair like the Beatles - described as "English/American style" - should be arrested and have it forcibly cut.
A man and his wife should not converse in public. Any woman going into a tailor's shop should be given a warning and the tailor should be jailed for ten days.
Women are not allowed to go to the public baths. Photographers can only take passport photos. Shopkeepers wrapping goods in newspaper or other printed paper should be arrested.
And so it goes on - a prescription for a grim and joyless existence if ever there was, and one which local people say was rigorously imposed throughout the five or six years the Taleban were in control.
Brush with the Taleban
Most of the Taleban came from outside, either from other parts of the country or from Pakistan and other Muslim places.
But they had their local collaborators and at the Virtue and Vice Centre there they all were, catalogued, complete with photographs and signed or thumb-printed statements promising to co-operate in the drive against sin.
I met some of the Taleban here in Herat, those who had been taken prisoner by the mujahideen.
Encounters in such conditions are not very illuminating, but then we had an unexpected real-life encounter with Taleban in the wild.
We strayed unintentionally into a village about 400km south of here, which turned out still to be occupied by them.
They seized us. It was a deeply disturbing experience. Some of them were clearly psychopathically violent and had to be constantly restrained by milder comrades.
Luckily the mullah in command seemed to be both sane and preoccupied and he ordered them to free us. This they did, but with obvious reluctance and further attempts on our possessions by some of them.
I shuddered with relief as we drove out of range. And that is what many people here in Herat are still doing - no wonder when I first got here just after the Taleban fled so many people were playing loud music in the streets and so many children were out flying kites.
But the euphoria has not lasted long. People know their problems are far from over. The mujahideen are back.
Many people have bad memories of the years when they ruled the roost with their rapacious ways and violent squabbles.
That is why many initially welcomed the Taleban and why now they long for anything - the former king, the United Nations, anything else - that might save them from an even worse future.
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