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Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 12:56 GMT
Kandahar's musical revival
Music shop in Kandahar
Music has returned to the streets of Kandahar
Only two months ago, the Taleban pulled out of Kandahar - the city where their ban on music was most strictly enforced. But now the Americans have moved in and the city is already very different, as the BBC's Susannah Price found out.

Kandahar was never high on my wish list of places to visit. When I was the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent 10 years ago, roads to the city were closed by feuding warlords.

When I finally made a daytrip there in May, during what turned out to be the Taleban's final year, I found a city full of fear.

The main market area is a Taleban nightmare come true. The cassette sellers compete to see who can play their songs the loudest

Our local driver was terrified by the idea of visiting a historic mausoleum - saying we would all be beaten up. He parked in another street while we hurried round the monument, emerging breathless but unscathed.

Many reporters seemed to visit Kandahar simply to film themselves being arrested by the furious Taleban.

But what a transformation now! The fear has been replaced by music - as people try to make up for seven years of silence.

The Sound of Music

When I arrived back in December, just a week after the Taleban silently cleared out of the city, everyone was eagerly waiting for the first concert. Hundreds of men of all ages crowded into a courtyard yelling excitedly at the singers, who had been rushed back from exile in Pakistan.

The singing and cheering followed us down the street as we dashed back to beat the curfew.

The main market area is a Taleban nightmare come true. The cassette sellers compete to see who can play their songs the loudest. Posters of Rambo and other muscle-bound gunmen are plastered alongside Hindi movie stars - while brand new televisions, radios and video players spill out onto the roadside.

video arcade in Kandahar
Even video arcades have opened up
Pet birds, banned by the Taleban, are also making a noisy comeback. Stalls on the street sell every conceivable shape of wooden cage. Children peer through the bars at the budgerigars and other brightly-coloured birds, trying to persuade their parents to take one home.

The massive crowds push through the four main bazaars like an army of ants - eventually forming a gridlock along with horses and carts and jingling trucks at the main crossroads.

Painful memories

But the noise has not completely drowned out the memory of the Taleban and their foreign fighters.

At the end of last year, we gazed up at the windows of a hospital wing where several wounded and heavily armed Arab fighters remained defiant and under siege.

They were all killed a few weeks ago in a shootout, and buried in a corner of the main cemetery which now attracts huge crowds. Every day, families flock to the graves - simple mounds of sand and pebbles, marked by poles of brightly coloured flags. It is widely believed these dead Arabs can grant wishes - and even cure the disabled.

But on my third visit to Afghanistan it was the influence of the United States that seemed to dominate. As obvious Westerners, we were given the very American thumbs up by local residents.

Mullah Omar's residence in Kandahar
Reminders of the war still remain
The scowling Taleban who used to purr round the city in four wheel drives with darkened windows have been replaced by young men with crew cuts and reflector sunglasses - America's special forces.

They have the same aversion to cameras as the Taleban did, as they try to track down and arrest remaining al-Qaeda fighters.

Those who are found are brought directly to the American base - at Kandahar's International Airport. It is surrounded by mine fields and rolls of barbed wire.

American enclave

Inside, the airbase is a hive of activity - helicopters land in a fog of dust, while young men rush round in buggies, jog or work out. The runway itself is beautifully smooth - the Americans have patched over the bombs craters they made, although they have not replaced the glass in the main terminal.

And at the centre of this whirlwind is the highest security area of all - where the al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects are kept. It is the size of a large football field - surrounded by a mud wall and razor wire, with soldiers in high wooden watchtowers, machine guns constantly trained on the prisoners.

US soldier talking to Afghans at the US base
Most US soldiers only see the Afghans that visit their compound
The tops of the large green tents are just visible but there is no sign of the inmates. The Americans are worried this could be a prime target. There is only one camera shot you are allowed to take of the complex - and when we set up our cameras there, we were nearly arrested.

One soldier said he could not wait for them all to be flown to the controversial detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

But once these prisoners all leave, the Americans' work will be done. They are here for the sole purpose of capturing and detaining al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters, not to carry out any peacekeeping or development work.

It is a self contained world at this airport - a little America imposed on the dusty Afghan soil. The most exciting development the day we arrived was the installation of showers and laundry facilities.

Many of the 3,500 military personnel here appear to see the real Afghanistan as alien territory. They have been flown in, survive on peanut butter and army rations, and will eventually be flown out again.

Security concerns mean most of them will never venture beyond their sterile base to the bustle of Kandahar city, a mere 20 minutes drive away, to see how their government's war has turned life there upside down.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | South Asia
US base in Kandahar attacked
14 Feb 02 | South Asia
Tough task on the Kandahar beat
19 Dec 01 | South Asia
Music returns to Kandahar
12 Dec 01 | South Asia
Normal life returning to Kandahar
09 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kandahar rivals broker deal
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