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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Eyewitness: Taleban in crisis
John Simpson
John Simpson travelled disguised as a woman
By BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan

There seemed to be an eerie emptiness in Nangarhar Province which adjoins Pakistan and takes in Jalalabad, the town where Osama Bin Laden has been operating and where several of his training camps have been set up.

People, it seemed, had either fled their homes in anticipation of an American attack or they were keeping their heads down.


The talk in Afghanistan now is of gradual defection from the Taleban

The Taleban, by contrast, were increasing their presence along large stretches of the border. Perhaps they think the threat to them will come by land via Pakistan.

We saw new posts which had been set up, one of them containing as many as 80 Taleban fighters.

Yet the talk in Afghanistan now is of gradual defection from the Taleban, as the militias and smaller contingents which joined them back in 1996 when they were plainly winning begin to have second thoughts now.

Defections

The Taleban have not enjoyed real popularity in the country for at least two years.

John Simpson in a burqa
The disguise worked 'superbly'
People say they are starting to be corrupted by power.

The other story you hear is that the Taleban are setting up press gangs in Kabul and Jalalabad in order to make up the numbers they are losing in defections from their armed forces.

That's another reason why people want to get somewhere they think is safe and keep out of sight.


Merely putting on the burqa I found has an extraordinary effect. It seems to make you disappear

We ourselves got into Afghanistan with the help of some of the cross-border smugglers who operate the full length of the border with Pakistan.

The smugglers insisted that the cameraman and I should wear burqas - the traditional full-length garment of Pathan women - which covers the entire figure and face and is compulsory for all women living in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan.

The invisible sex

Merely putting on the burqa, I found, has an extraordinary effect. It seems to make you disappear.


Behind their burqas, women have become an invisible sex in Afghanistan.

At roadblocks, guards may look closely at the men in a car. But they simply ignore the women who are mostly immune from being searched, though in one or two places, it is said, women searchers have been recruited now.

In our case, the tactic worked superbly.

Our minders were heavily armed - both because there is always a certain amount of lawlessness in the border areas and because they wanted to protect us from the Taleban if they tried to capture us.

The Taleban are now reported to have orders to arrest any journalist they find, but they did not find us.

Maybe the burqas, those cloaks of invisibility, did the trick.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's World Affairs editor John Simpson
reports on his journey across the border into Afghanistan
See also:

22 Sep 01 | Middle East
UAE cuts ties with Taleban
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
21 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition flexes its muscles
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
14 Sep 01 | South Asia
Aid agencies warn of Afghan crisis
18 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
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