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“You’ll never get through,” the Taliban man shouted at me. “The Northern Alliance are shooting into Takhta–Pul and the Americans are bombing the centre of the town.”
“Impossible,” I said. Takhta–Pul is only 24 miles away, a few minutes ride from the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. But then a refugee with a cracked face and white hair matting the brow below his brown turban — he looked 70 but said he was only 36 — stumbled up to us. “The Americans just destroyed our homes,” he cried. “I saw my house disappear. It was a big plane that spat smoke and soaked the ground with fire.”
For a man who couldn’t read and had never left Kandahar province in all his life, it was a chilling enough description of the Spectre, the American “bumble bee” aircraft that picks off militiamen and civilians with equal ferocity. And down the tree–lined road came hundreds more refugees — old women with dark faces and babies carried in the arms of young women in burqas and boys with tears on their faces — all telling the same stories.
Mullah Abdul Rahman slumped down beside me, passed his hand over the sweat on his face and told me how his brother — a fighter in the same town — had just escaped. “There was a plane that shot rockets out of its side,” he said, shaking his head. “It almost killed my brother today. It hit many people.”
So this is what it’s like to be on the losing side in the American–Afghan bloodbath. Everywhere it was the same story of desperation and terror and courage. An American F–18 soared above us as a middle–aged man approached me with angry eyes. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he screamed. “Sheikh Osama is an excuse to do this to the Islamic people.”
I pleaded with yet another Taliban fighter — a 35–year–old man with five children called Jamaldan — to honour his government’s promise to get me to Kandahar. He looked at me pityingly. “How can I get you there,” he asked, “when we can hardly protect ourselves?”
The implications are astonishing. The road from the Iranian border town of Zabul to Kandahar has been cut by Afghan gunmen and US special forces. The Americans were bombing civilian traffic and the Taliban on the road to Spin Boldak, and Northern Alliance troops were firing across the highway. Takhta–Pul was under fire from American guns and besieged by the Alliance. Kandahar was being surrounded.
No wonder I found the local Taliban commander, the thoughtful and intelligent Mullah Haqqani, preparing to cross the Pakistani border to Quetta — for “medical reasons”.
Kandahar may not be the Taliban Stalingrad — not yet — but tragedy was the word that came to mind. Out of a dust–storm came a woman in a grey shawl. “I lost my daughter two days ago,” she wailed. “The Americans bombed our home in Kandahar and the roof fell on her.” Amid the chaos and shouting, I did what reporters do. Out came my notebook and pen. Name? “Muzlifa.” Age? “She was two.” I turn away. “Then there was my other daughter.” She nods when I ask if this girl died too. “At the same moment. Her name was Farigha. She was three.” I turn away. “There wasn’t much left of my son.” Notebook out for the third time. “When the roof hit him, he was turned to meat and all I could see were bones. His name was Sherif. He was a year and a half old.”
They came out of a blizzard of sand, these people, each with their story of blood. Shukria Gul told her story more calmly. Beneath her burqa, she sounded like a teenager. “My husband Mazjid was a labourer. We have two children, our daughter Rahima and our son Talib. Five days ago, the Americans hit a munitions dump in Kandahar and the bullets came through our house. My husband was killed. He was 25.”
At the Akhtar Trust refugee camp, I found Dr Ismael Moussa, just up from Karachi, a doctor of theology dispensing religion along with money for widows. “The Americans have created an evil for themselves,” he said. “And it will pay for this. The Almighty Lord allows a respite to an oppressor, enough rope to hang itself, until He seizes him and never lets go.”
Seizing, it seems, was also on the mind of the Foreign Office, earnestly warning reporters that Taliban invitations to Kandahar were a trap to kidnap foreign journalists. Given the politeness of even the most desperate Taliban yesterday, this may fit into the “interesting–if–true” file. Dr Moussa suggested a more disturbing reason: the desire to prevent foreign correspondents witnessing in Kandahar the kind of war crimes committed by Britain’s friends in the Northern Alliance at the fall of Mazar–i–Sharif.
As for Mullah Najibullah, the Taliban’s only foreign ministry representative this side of Kandahar, he looked tired and deeply depressed, admitting he had left Spin Boldak the previous night and had not slept since. But Kandahar was calm, he claimed. The Taliban’s Islamic elders continued to stay there. Later, he admitted that all Taliban men had been ordered to leave Spin Boldak on Saturday night for fear that Alliance gunmen would invade the camps disguised as refugees.
“Only God Almighty has allowed the Muslims to continue to fight the great armed might of the United States,” he added. If he had looked out the window, he would have seen the contrails of the bomber streams heading for Kandahar.
It was an eerie phenomenon. Taliban men — rifles over their shoulders — stared into the sun, up high into the burning light through which four white columns of smoke burnt from jet engines across the sky. I stood behind them and wondered at the battle I had watched for 20 years: a swaying host of eighth–century black turbans and, just behind them, the contrails of a B–52 heading in from Diego Garcia. God against technology.