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EDITIONS
Saturday, 8 June, 2002, 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK
Kabul's streets come back to life
Afghan refugees returning to their homeland
Afghans get back to life before the Taleban

It's taking a little time to come to terms with. For five years, from 1996 to 2001, when the Taleban ruled it, this was a difficult and dangerous place to be.

In the daytime the streets were quiet. Even those who remained here were cautious about going out: a bare ankle, a clipped beard could earn you a public beating.

My strongest impressions of Kabul were of the dark, empty, silent streets at night, when the howling of dogs was the loudest sound, and the brightest light came from oil-lamps in the windows.

Afghan refugees returning to their homeland
Thousands are looking to rebuild their lives

And now everything is different. I haven't been here since the city fell to the Northern Alliance, nearly seven months ago.

The streets are crowded, the shops are full, there are actually traffic jams, and you see so many women with their heads uncovered, and so many men without beards, that you get used to it quite quickly.

No-one strings up television sets and video tape on the street corners; no-one goes crazy and threatens to beat you up if you get out a television camera. Coming here is a pleasure, not a test of nerve.

And not only for me. I went to a refugee camp at Pol-e Charki, to the east of Kabul. Pol-e Charki used to mean just one thing: a savage prison, where people were routinely tortured and executed under each successive regime.

Return home

Now, though, when people talk about Pol-e Charki they usually mean the United Nations refugee camp which opened up there two months ago. It's now probably the busiest refugee camp in the world: 10,000 people pass through it every day.

But they're not staying, they're arriving back from the camps in Pakistan where some have lived for 20 years - and the UN is registering them, giving them food and money and the tools and equipment to rebuild their homes.

Businesses open up again in Kabul, Afghanistan
Shops are reopening in the streets of Kabul

They're enthusiastic and excited, and for the first time in a generation they think they've got a real future. The same process is going on in the west of the country, where the refugees are coming back from Iran.

Both Iran and Pakistan put up for 20 years with millions of Afghan refugees, and got precious little credit or support for it from the outside world. And now the refugees are taking with them the skills that revitalised, for instance, the Pakistani carpet industry, and the building industry in Iran. Iran's and Pakistan's loss will be Afghanistan's gain.

Still, things aren't uniformly bright. It's mostly the Afghan minority groups that are coming back with such enthusiasm, the Persian-speakers, the Hazaras and so on.

The Pashtu-speaking majority aren't returning from Pakistan in anything like the same numbers. They're much more gloomy about the future, because they think the dominant new force here, the Northern Alliance, are enemies of the Pashtuns.

National characteristic

This wouldn't be Afghanistan if there weren't endless infighting and intrigue - and as the loya jirga, the traditional council of chiefs from across the entire country, gathers to decide the constitutional future of the country, the in-fighting and intrigue is reaching new levels.

Afghan woman voter
Women enjoy their freedoms again to vote

But Afghans have another characteristic, which is sometimes impressive and at other times makes you want to despair: their ability to behave as though the past never happened.

Take, for instance, the election to the loya jirga, the national constitutional council, of the warlord Abu Sayef. I've been here when Abu Serf's men were bombarding Kabul from the outlying area of Paghman, killing hundreds of innocent people in a completely pointless frenzy of violence.

Now, even though the rules say no one responsible for the deaths of people is eligible, Abu Sayef blandly insists he had nothing to do with it. And you can be sure there'll be plenty of other similar warlords in there with him.

Kabul city street, Afghanistan
The international community has promised $5.4bn in aid

Afghans take you at your own estimate of yourself. It used to be that if you said you were with the Taleban, the Taleban accepted you without question.

Now, if you say you're a democrat, you're a democrat. In some ways it's one of the more encouraging things about Afghanistan at the moment.

In others, you can see why some people here are so worried about the future. Still, I don't want to be gloomy.

A country which is suddenly free to play music again, and show pictures of human beings after five years of the weirdest kind of fundamentalism on earth is a country with plenty to be happy about.


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