For Afghans in Kabul, the facade of daily life under the Taliban masks fear and despair

For Afghans in Kabul, the facade of daily life under the Taliban masks fear and despair

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KABUL — An uneasy calm has settled over the Afghan capital this summer, a cautious détente between the country’s strict religious rulers and a dispirited, concerned populace struggling to survive but also relieved the punitive 20-year war with foreign troops is over.

Both sides are attempting to maintain a precarious balancing act. The Taliban regime, hoping to avoid further alienating foreign donors, has issued vague signals rather than ironclad orders on controversial issues, particularly women’s rights. The citizenry, hoping to weather another tough day without crossing an unpredictable red line, is keeping a low profile for the most part.

But as the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power approaches next week, the balancing act is more difficult to pull off. A series of violent attacks in the capital have belied the regime’s claims that it can keep the public safe, while the Taliban’s alternating statements about keeping teenage girls out of school have left thousands of families frustrated and angry.

In the slums of the city, life seems to be taking its usual course. The summer nights are hot and the electricity often goes out. Men sit on concrete steps and stroll to corner mosques as the evening call to prayer wafts through the muggy air. Children chase each other in the streets. Burqa-clad women crowd under bakery windows begging for a piece of bread.

But the capital, which had swelled to 4 million two years ago, is gradually dwindling. Downtown, select parking lots are empty and groups of drug addicts are taking over the sidewalks. Gone are the traffic jams that once inch ahead while little boys swam like fish between cars trying to wash windshields for pennies.

The illusion of post-war security has collapsed. First, on July 31, an American drone missile struck a house in central Kabul, its shaking being felt several miles away. Soon after, President Biden announced that the strike had killed the leader of al-Qaeda, which the Taliban agreed to ban in their 2020 peace deal with US officials.

Then, over the next few days, a spate of terrorist attacks in Kabul’s Shia Muslim community – including a bomb hidden in a flower pot and gunshots from an apartment building – dashed hopes that Shia could gather fearlessly to watch Muharram after years of persecution. a month of mourning for Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

“We used to think the Taliban were a distant monster. Now the monster is here, in charge of the government, so it’s their responsibility to protect us. People are feeling more confident,” said Safar Baqri, 32, two weeks ago as he hung colorful banners to sell during Muharram.

But by last weekend scores of people had been killed or wounded in the area. Thousands of banners were removed by police, traffic was blocked and streets were empty except for Taliban forces in armored trucks. Community leaders angrily accused the authorities of “abolishing” their sacred rite rather than protecting it.

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“We have taken many victims to hospitals, some with missing legs or arms, some with shrapnel in their stomachs, some with burned faces,” said an ambulance driver named Syed Ali, 55, after a bomb exploded near a major intersection on August 6 had exploded. “We tried to get all their names but some were too hurt to speak.”

The drone strike, on the other hand, injured no residents, damaged a single home and targeted a foreign-born militant – Ayman al-Zawahiri – little known to many Afghans. But it sparked a wave of public anger at the United States that had receded since the withdrawal of foreign troops last August.

There have been defiant tweets across the internet mocking the Taliban regime for failing to retaliate. There was an anti-American rally in Kabul where Taliban security escorts and protesters held up perfectly lettered placards in English that read “Down with America”.

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For the most part, however, the capital soon reverted to a familiar, dour routine of making do with far too little. In conversations over the last few weeks, people from all walks of life said they were mainly trying to get through each day – and avoid thinking too far into an uncertain future.

In central Kabul, a line of thin-looking men stretched several blocks in front of a World Food Program depot. Nearby, other men waited with battered wheelbarrows, hoping to make pennies by hauling supplies of wheat, sugar, and cooking oil to people’s homes.

“This is my third time here,” confided a dignified man in his 60s named Khalid Aziz, who said he spent 25 years teaching Persian literature to high school students. “This country has suffered a tragedy and we are all just trying to survive it,” he said. “We fear for our children’s future and we have no hope for tomorrow.”

A few blocks away, a glittering bridal shop sat empty. The carpeted showroom displayed shapely mannequins in sequined imported robes, but their faces had been covered by masks or wigs to obey Taliban directives. The owner, Sayed Hussain, said he now has few customers because most brides can only afford simple dresses made by local tailors.

“I’m worried and upset all the time. Everyone in this country is upset,” Hussain said, fingering prayer beads non-stop. “We have no idea what will happen next or what our future will hold. When I see the hundreds of messages on Facebook, so many people trying to leave the country, I think I should take my family and go.”

As with the partially covered mannequins, Taliban officials have taken other half-steps to implement their strict Islamic code without inciting the public against them. Weddings, the social glue of Afghan society, were already divided into separate rooms for men and women. The regime has allowed weddings to go ahead but banned live bands, known for deafening amplified vocals and drums.

The Taliban government has also worked to modernize its bureaucracy and soften its international image. Government departments now have neatly dressed professionals and speakers. Many are talibs, but they bear little resemblance to the sinister figures with shaggy beards and Kalashnikov rifles who ruled the country in the late 1990s.

At the international airport, arriving passengers are hurled through once-cumbersome immigration lines, and uniformed female officers stamp their passports in booths alongside their male counterparts — although the regime has barred women from most public jobs except hospitals and women’s prisons.

In a gleaming bank, foreign cash transfer services, until recently blocked by international sanctions, are efficiently processed by technicians behind computer screens. The premises are immaculate and the scene much more orderly than the pre-Taliban crowds.

Outside, many women shop bare-faced, seemingly unafraid of punishment, although the regime has instructed those of childbearing age to veil in public, or preferably not to leave the house at all. New rules also ban women from walking long distances without a male companion.

Officials refer to these orders as mere “guidance,” and there have been no reports of women in the capital being beaten for improper dress. But in rural areas, religious officials have begun severely punishing both criminals and moral transgressors. In Zabul province, authorities recently announced the public flogging of two thieves and an adulterous couple.

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Such mixed signals have stirred public opinion on the most sensitive issue of the day: if and when the Taliban will allow girls over sixth grade to attend school. Since the regime abruptly backed out on its promise to let older girls back into school in May, officials have issued various statements: the curriculum needs to be revised; Religious scholars are divided; Some country men don’t want their daughters to leave the house.

The wait is a growing source of anxiety and frustration for families in Kabul, whose teenage daughters have been sitting at home for months – and whose younger ones fear what will happen when they finish sixth grade.

“I feel so sorry for my daughter,” said Ghulam Haider, 38, an engineer who lost his job at a foreign construction company when the Taliban took power. As the family gathered in their living room one last night, 13-year-old Samia sat shyly on a sofa, looking dejected.

“She loves school and she’s so intelligent,” Haider said. Although many of their friends have left the country, the family had planned to stay. “We wanted to see Afghanistan become peaceful and begin to prosper,” he said. “But now, for the sake of their future, we are also thinking about leaving.”