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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
Flashback: Meeting the Taleban
Afghanistan has suffered decadesa of war
Afghanistan has suffered decades of war
Former aid worker Marcus George met the Taleban before Mazar-e-Sharif was captured in 1998. Here he recalls the colourful encounters.

At the front of the local governor's building there was a swimming pool, barely large enough to take two strokes forward. That did not matter to one gangly Taleb who was busy frolicking in the murky green water as his friends stood about laughing.

"Why don't you join me?" he cried, trying to splash me with water as I approached. But one look at the turgid liquid was enough for me to decline his invitation.

After several cups of green tea, dozens of Iranian-made toffees, and long-winded officious conversation we left the governor's office with permission to work in the region.

Running for cover

It was mid-morning when we emerged and the swimmer had just pulled on his shalwar kamiz (traditional robes) after his soak. He saw us come out of the office and charged over.

Taleban fighters have a fearsome reputation
Taleban fighters have a fearsome reputation
I kicked off the usual lengthy round of Pashtun greetings and he began to sing, breaking into uncontrollable laughter between verses.

"Taleban can have fun too, you know," he said, as he wound his black turban around his skullcap.He let loose a shrill laugh and ran off back to his group.

As I climbed into our vehicle I saw him swinging a Kalashnikov by the barrel at his colleagues, who choked with laughter as they ran for cover.

We had arrived in Qalah-e-Now, in the province of Badghis, northeast of Herat, on a trip which was to take us to within a few kilometres of the frontline.

It was June 1998 and the Taleban were slowly pushing their way towards the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the general mood was grim.

But this comic behaviour showed that there was always a place for laughter, even amongst members of one of the world's most widely feared regimes.

Front line

Two days of bone-rattling driving led us through dried up riverbeds, over the Sanjarak Pass at 2,000m and up horribly steep slopes.

A lorry stacked full of wheat had ground to a halt on a vast hill and sacks of wheat were tumbling out.

Afghanistan's rugged terrain
Afghanistan's rugged terrain makes distributing aid difficult
Within a few minutes the heavily laden truck was half-empty and its handlers, having shed their goods, had to carry them two-by-two up to the top of the slope and refill the truck.

We arrived in Bala Murghab to the sound of big Taleban guns booming away five kilometres away at the frontline. They shook the ground and sliced through the peaceful Afghan countryside.

Despite the nearby rumble of war we were in high spirits. Within hours of arriving at the mud-built compound a fever of activity around cauldron-like cooking pots produced an abundance of hot rice and freshly baked bread.

Friday came and, not being able to work on the Islamic holy day, I went fishing with an Afghan field officer.

Fish 'like Mujahedin'

The sun glinted on the water as we cast the line in. But within minutes the arrival of a non-Afghan had caused commotion among a group of Afghan boys larking around in the river.

Taleban can have fun too, you know

Taleban fighter
Needless to say any fish which fancied feeding on a piece of soggy bread were scared away by their escapades.

"Maybe we should fish like Mujahedin," my colleague said.

"Is that any different to fishing with a line and hook?" I asked.

"Just a little," he replied. "If we throw grenades into the water they will explode and all the dead fish will float to the top. Then all we have to do is collect them."

The trip lasted for 12 days. Elsewhere in the world Iran was playing the US in the World Cup and the ears of Afghanistan, awaiting the score, were glued to radios receiving the BBC World Service.

Simple remedies

In Herat, I was surrounded by ailing Afghans who, assuming I was a doctor, had come for treatment.

I was unable to do anything for the majority of them. But one man arrived with his toddler who was seriously ill with malnutrition.

Packets and packets of high-protein biscuits were distributed with instructions to crush them up in clean water to feed the infant.

Years later I still hope that the child lived. And I think of all the other thousands of children, and adults, who are suffering from medical problems which have simple remedies.

Back on the road we were plagued by crazy Taleb drivers. The Taleban may be the fiercest fighters in the region but behind the wheel they are a liability.

We were passed time and again by Taleban pick-ups flying down the rocky tracks. The troops in the back either stared at us or let fly whoops of joy. They were in imminent danger of being tossed from the beaten-up trucks.

They soared ahead as thick black diesel smoke billowed from the exhaust. We caught them up two kilometres on. A broken rear axle had terminated their journey and they sat around, spitting the acrid smelling nuswar - a type of Afghan tobacco.

Three months later these same Taleban fighters who I'd seen enjoying lighter moments would have been involved in the bloody offensive to take the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's harsh paradise
07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan aid: The supply problems
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