Post-Taliban Jalalabad Fighting For Stability, Hope
A decade ago, al-Qaida leaders were last seen in eastern Afghanistan, in the city of Jalalabad, before they vanished. And as the years went on, Jalalabad, which lies in the mountainous region along the Pakistan border, became a center of insurgent activity.
Now, it is a city still struggling to stay peaceful.
Jalalabad's deputy police chief knows what it means to be under attack. His hands bear the angry red scars left from the severe burns he suffered last winter, when suicide bombers overran a bank in the city.
Uniformed police and soldiers had been standing in line to cash their paychecks. Of the 40 who died that day, at least half were civilians.
Still, Qari Amir Lewal says spectacular attacks by the Taliban are rare in Jalalabad.
"There is no one area that they control here, but they do hide and seek. They create trouble and then go back. They create panic and terror, and for that, the people hate them," he says.
Lewal spent the early part of his life fighting out of uniform: first as a mujahedeen against the Soviets, then against the Taliban. And finally he fought with American forces in December 2001.
One recent afternoon, at a thatched mud hut on the edge of town that serves as a police outpost, Lewal pointed to the dramatic mountain range that curves south of the city: the Tora Bora area, the power base and last stronghold of al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
"Al-Qaida was not easily going to escape from the area, or give up. It's a very difficult part of the area, the other side ends in Pakistan. They had an escape route from the back. Bin Laden wasn't a simple, naive type of person. He spent the morning here, the afternoon somewhere else, and the evening somewhere else," Lewal says.
When asked whether he ever met bin Laden, he says he has not.
"Because when the Taliban were in power, I was in opposition and I had fled the city. An enemy can never meet an enemy," he says.
When the Taliban government was finally driven out, Lewal says he felt "jubilation and happiness."
"Because the people under them were like a nation taken hostage by them, and we would hope that we should have a government that is elected and brought into power by the people," he says.
Ten years later, though, the world is still not the way he hoped it would be.
"Because what should have taken place and what should have been done, it didn't happen. Some people say that the Americans came here under the slogan that they will rebuild this country and bring security, and that hasn't happened. Then other people say that they have stayed here for this long and that's enough, they should leave. They haven't been able to bring security and peace, something that they came for," he says.
Music Returns, As Do Attacks
While they were in power, the Taliban were infamous for their ban on music, and after Sept. 11, music quickly came to symbolize an Afghanistan emerging from the Taliban era.
One recent morning, Abdul Ghani stands in his quiet shop, looking out at the bustling bazaar. Ghani's tiny space is lined with cassettes and CDs, but he can no longer advertise with the sound of music, as he once did.
Last year, Ghani says, there were 25 music shops. Of those, 18 were blown up, 6 were forced to close down. In the last one month or so, he says, 16 are back.
The attackers, says Ghani, came at night and planted explosives that went off after the shops were closed. The bombs killed one young boy, though Ghani thinks the attackers were aiming at something much broader than music shops.
"These people, they want to finish the Afghan culture, they want to target the Afghan culture, whoever are launching these attacks," he says.
In the wake of the bombs, Ghani took action.
"I gathered all of the shopkeepers one day, and I said look, you cannot give in to these people. ... I said, look, if we let them close these shops, the next move on their parts will be they'll close the tailors shop, they'll close the cosmetics and the others," he says.
Ghani isn't sure it's the Taliban who are targeting the music. His theory is that it's foreign militants from neighboring Pakistan, aiming to stir up trouble in Afghanistan.
And it is true that in the last few years the Taliban have gotten involved themselves in music, putting out their own songs. Some ballads tug at the heart with lyrics such "Orphans are crying rivers of tears." Others strike a tougher note: "Your turn has come crusader. I don't care about your atom bomb."
A New World For Jalalabad's Girls
Jalalabad is set on the fabled Grand Trunk Road. To the west is Kabul; to the east, just beyond the Khyber Pass lies Pakistan.
For centuries, the Grand Truck Road has carried invaders and also ideas into the city, which may account for the many billboards around town advertising schools, like one for the private Oxford Model High School.
There is a university, and the provincial governor even sponsors his own school: the Shirzai Learning Center. Of its 5,000 students, 2,000 are girls.
At the school, the girls have heard tales of the Taliban times, and how girls like them were not allowed to go to school. But none is old enough to remember.
Waslat Nasima, 17, does remember coming home to Jalalabad years after her family had fled to Pakistan. She and her sister were wearing headscarves — and found themselves in a sea of head-to-toe burqas.
"They were looking at us and were discussing and laughing. They said, 'Please, don't wear any burqa, day by day, we will also change ourselves. ... [Now,] all of them are wearing scarves," she says.
Waslat says her widowed mother wants her to become a doctor. Her mother is just a housewife, but has a brave mind, says Waslat.
Adila Shinwari, 18, says her mother never spent a day in school. But she also wants Adila to study medicine. And her father, a government lawyer, has actually taken on her disapproving uncles.
"My uncles say, 'Don't go to school because you are big now and it's not good for a girl to go to school.' But my father says, 'No, it is good,' and then he fights with them,'" she says.
And how do these young women picture Afghanistan in the next 10 years?
Waslat is optimistic.
"When we study and we struggle hard, our Afghanistan also will be in the high position of all countries, like [where] you come from, and inshallah, we will do it by our own self, if we try our best," she says.
So the key is the new generation?
"Yes," she says with a laugh. "We are the keys of Afghanistan."
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