By GEOFFREY YORK
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, September 13, 2002
When I first visited Kabul last year, under the watchful eye of the Taliban regime, I was one of about three guests in the vast empty hallways of the Inter-Continental Hotel, perched on a hilltop at the edge of town.
Much of the former luxury hotel had been damaged by rocket fire and missiles in the early 1990s, but the Taliban still insisted that all visitors had to stay there. It was a lonely experience. The only sound in the dining room was the solemn religious broadcasting of Radio Shariat, the Taliban propaganda channel.
My latest visit to Kabul this summer found the city transformed. The demise of the Taliban has sparked a boom of activity in the Afghan capital. But as always, it is the affluent who enjoy the most benefits in the new economy. While beggars and refugees plod wearily through the dusty streets outside, visiting foreigners now have a selection of comfortable guesthouses and restaurants for their pleasure.
I stayed at a guesthouse that was owned by a British television cameraman. Once, according to local legend, it had been the villa of one of Osama bin Laden's wives. Now it is filled with the owner's collection of antique rifles, along with all the luxuries that his foreign guests expect: satellite television, a DVD player, a stock of Western films, a refrigerator stocked with cold beer, and fine china for the dining table.
The guesthouse is a favourite haunt of U.S. Special Forces troops, who relax there during their rest-and-recreation visits to Kabul. It is a surreal sight to see the elite American plainclothes soldiers, taking a break from their hunt for Osama bin Laden, sprawled on a sofa watching Hollywood movies on digital discs at the former villa of their quarry's wife.
The Americans grumbled about the beards that they were obliged to grow. Though they still don't resemble Afghans, the beards can sometimes help them to confuse the enemy. "It gives you that extra three seconds when they're not sure who you are," one of them said.
One of the hottest controversies in Afghanistan this summer was the killing of 48 Afghan civilians by an American gunship at a wedding party. But at my guesthouse, the Special Forces soldiers had little sympathy for the victims. "Those idiots with their wedding parties," complained a chiropractor from Wyoming who was serving as a paramedic in the Special Forces. "We keep telling them not to shoot in the air, but they just don't get the message."
Out in the streets of Kabul, there is a new boss. At the military checkpoints, the zealous religious believers of the Taliban, with their scraggly beards and black turbans, have been replaced by the anti-Taliban mujahedeen, with their camouflage uniforms and their neatly trimmed beards and mustaches.
Last year, Kabul was a quiet city of bicycles and horse-drawn carts. Today the bustling city is filled with cars and trucks, driven by thousands of returning refugees and relief-agency workers. I was astonished to see traffic jams in the once-empty streets.
Yellow-and-white Toyota Corolla sedans are the most ubiquitous sight in the capital. Thousands of the cars have been imported to Kabul from Dubai. Car dealerships line the streets out of town.
I hired one of the imported cars and a driver for a few days. Every time it shifted into reverse, oddly, it played the theme from "The Godfather."
Dozens of previously illicit businesses, such as photo shops, have reopened in Kabul's streets. The Taliban had banned photographs of any living object, so the photo business was just about eliminated. Now it is booming again.
A few women are walking in the streets without burqas, the shroud-like head-to-ankle veil that Afghanistan has made famous. But the vast majority of women, perhaps 80 per cent by my estimate, are still hidden behind burqas. Outside Kabul, in smaller towns and cities, the percentage is even higher. In deference to the summer season, many of the veiled women are carrying parasols.
In one suburb, I stumble into a group of women in a wedding march, banging on drums and singing as they stride down the street. They aren't wearing burqas. But when they see a foreign man, they hide their faces in embarrassment.
In many ways, life in Afghanistan is as harsh as ever. Although the country is largely peaceful now, it remains impoverished and drought-stricken.
Contrary to their warlike image, however, the Afghan people are warm and generous to guests. Even the poorest refugees are honour-bound to offer a meal to their visitors.
At one fly-blown village of mud huts near Kabul, the people had almost nothing to call their own. But when I unexpectedly dropped into their village to ask about their post-Taliban existence, they were unfazed. They promptly offered me a plate of deliciously fresh green grapes from one of the vineyards that had survived the long civil war.
The Afghans too are survivors. Despite 22 years of war, they have somehow managed to keep their pride and dignity intact.