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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Flashback: When the Taleban took Kabul
Taleban fighters heading towards Kabul, 1996
The Taleban have been brutal to opponents
By Terence White, former AFP correspondent in Kabul

I was a journalist based in Kabul when the Taleban first marched into the capital and committed an atrocity that most people other than Afghans have probably now forgotten - the brutal murder of President Najibullah, the former communist leader of Afghanistan.

Bomb damage in Kabul
Kabul has suffered destruction and poverty for many years
It was shortly after 0100 on 27 September 1996, when I monitored nervous radio messages from Afghan guards at the United Nations compound.

Najibullah had been living there under UN protection for four and a half years, since his government fell in 1992.

The guards told their Western bosses, who were staying in another part of the city, that some people were knocking on the gates demanding to see their "special guest".

It didn't take a cryptologist's skill to understand that the Taleban had come for Najibullah.

Earlier that night the capital had been abandoned by the Afghan Government troops of Ahmed Shah Masood, many of them my neighbours.

I was lying in bed, fully clothed and fully awake, flush with adrenaline and uncertainty, pondering how we would be treated by the Taleban.

The UN guards were instructed not to resist and a squad of religious militants grabbed Najibullah and his brother, who was staying with him.

It wasn't until next morning that, along with tens of thousands of Afghans, I understood how Taleban rule would be.

The hapless pair were hanging lifeless from a traffic control box, but they didn't die that way.

Their bloodied and mutilated bodies were gruesome testimony to death by torture; Najibullah was said to have been castrated.

Punishment beatings

As self-described champions of Islamic reform the Taleban had set a highly questionable - and to many, repugnant - example of Muslim justice.

They also sent an imperious and sinister warning to the potentially rebellious population of Kabul.

Najibullah
Najibullah had been sheltered by the UN
Next, the religious police from the soon to be dreaded Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice appeared on the streets.

Their sole business was punishment.

Their first victims were women, whom they beat with wire cables and hose-pipes when found on the street in violation of the Taleban's first decree, which stated that women could no longer work and must stay at home.

This decree illustrated the Taleban's ignorance and bigotry, being a reflection of their Pashtun tribal culture rather than Islam, which does not ban women from work or school.

The associated social haemorrhage caused by staff shortages in hospitals and government offices, where women could no longer work, underscored their abysmal lack of organisation and planning.

If legitimately in public, to go shopping for instance, women had to be escorted by a male relative.

Decree after decree

"Violators have no right to complain," was the facile Taleban explanation, and when jobless war-widows bravely demanded how they could feed their children, they were told God would provid. (Foreign aid agencies donated their food.)

Taleban fighters
The Taleban soon started policing morals
The next decrees obliged men to grow a beard and for all transportation to stop at the time of enforced congregational prayers.

Music was banned and cinemas closed; children were not even allowed to fly kites or keep pigeons as pets.

Curiously, the first gamblers, thieves and homosexuals apprehended by the Taleban were not punished severely but paraded through town with blackened faces as a humiliation.

However, within a year, public executions, amputations and stonings were a regular Friday event in Kabul.

Rule from Kandahar

This suffocating litany of decrees was broadcast from Radio Sharia (formerly Radio Kabul), all in keeping with the Taleban's narrow interpretation of Islamic religious law.

This might have been acceptable to the people if they were included in the decision making.

But they were not.

All major decisions came from the Taleban's spiritual headquarters in Kandahar where their reclusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar lived.

Kabul sign
The Taleban arrived in Kabul in 1996
When I was expelled in 1997 on false charges of spying for Ahmed Shah Masood even the foreign ministry in Kabul was powerless to intervene.

When Kabul was under threat from Masood the Taleban became more draconian in the enforcement of their rules and they sent goon squads out each night, searching for hidden weapons and dragging ethnic Tajiks off to jail.

At these times they also prevented journalists from visiting the front lines.

Sometimes you could bluff your way through although I got beaten by angry mullahs for doing this.

As battlefield casualties mounted, popular support for the fight against the opposition United Front waned.

This obliged the Taleban to increasingly rely on Pakistani and Arab recruits, most of the latter being Osama bin Laden's followers.

Reportedly even Chechens and militants from Uzbekistan were among the foreign fighters.

These pan-Islamic fighters have committed many atrocities against minority Afghan communities which have further alienated the Taleban.

If the Taleban ever objected to Bin Laden's extremist ideology they have never said so.

They allowed the proliferation of training camps for Muslim militants from all over the world, which has precipitated the current attacks on Afghanistan by the United States and the UK.

I will not be sorry to see the Taleban vanquished, but given yet another war imposed on this poor country, I weep for Afghanistan and the continued price the Afghans must pay for before they can enjoy what many countries already take for granted: peace and prosperity and religious freedom.

See also:

28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history
29 Aug 01 | South Asia
Why Afghans seek hope abroad
12 Aug 98 | South Asia
Afghanistan's warring factions
14 Dec 99 | South Asia
Taleban probe former Communists
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