Was our road safe? We were moving through territory that supposedly had been captured by the Northern Alliance after a bloody nighttime skirmish with the Taliban earlier this week. But that route, in the hills around the northern Afghan village of Dasht-i-Qala, was also supposed to have been secure when a Taliban ambush left 10 soldiers and three foreign journalists dead last Sunday. And moving through the barren hills, it was increasingly clear that no one--not the army we were supposed to be following, nor the joyous civilians and soldiers celebrating the recent "victories" of the Northern Alliance--really knew what was going on. The hills where much of the fighting takes place here are filled with mines, and no one can say which of the half dozen or so dusty trails that lead across the empty plains are OK to travel.
Driving from Khoja Bawaudin to the northeastern town of Taloqan--a seven-hour trip that covers a mere 50 miles or so--is an exercise in fatalism. Army posts stationed on the tops of hills have no better idea of where the mines are than the hashish-smoking drivers and translators we were paying $200 a day to get us somewhere--anywhere--safely. At one point, sitting on top of a barren outcropping from which we could see the cratered hills where fuel-air explosives had left the hillsides a scarred black wasteland, a lone man on a bicycle headed off into the dust in one direction and a jeep in the other. Maybe it's this way, said our drivers. And maybe it's that way, echoed the translators. Eventually, we headed off into the direction where the air was filled with the most dust, hopefully from moving vehicles.
It's not just the dust that obscures hopes here. Allegiances are a constantly sifting thing, perhaps nowhere more so than in the recently "liberated" towns and villages. In Taloqan, situated 120 miles to the east of Mazar-e Sharif and freed only three days ago, the Taliban are far from gone. In fact, when Northern Alliance troops moved in, some 2,000 Taliban--including mullahs and soldiers who had recently fought against the Northern Alliance--were welcomed back into the society with open arms as long as they gave up their weapons. We were told today that these Taliban were "good" Taliban, intent on reform, moderate, and opposed to the foreigners who had brought so much violence to this country.
The other Taliban--the Chechens, Pakistanis, Arabs and all others who have come from abroad--were killed or taken away to prisons in the hills around Taloqan. The distinctions are very clear. When our small convoy came across several dead bodies along the road to Taloqan, the locals stopped to peer at the cadavers. "Those are Punjabis," said one man, pointing a stick at the place where the soldier's head should have been. Our translator threw his lit cigarette onto another corpse whose arms were frozen in the position of a man holding a gun which was no longer there. "I would smash his head in again if I could," he said. Later, we spotted a troop of men being led away through a small valley, their hands tied behind their backs with string. All of them were foreign supporters of the Taliban.
But what much of the world seems to expect as they watch the Taliban flee--women throwing off their head-to-toe burqas and men shaving off their beards--is not immediately obvious in this city. Earlier today, I was one of a group who met with several women hospice workers who had been stripped of everything when the Taliban came to power in Taloqan about 18 months ago. Cowering on the floor of a room in a local hospital, they had indeed shed their burqas, but they seemed literally terrified by the thought of anyone finding out. When we told them we could send them copies of our articles, they said we had to do it by secret channels so they wouldn't be caught. They were glad that the Taliban had left--but they wanted to leave too.
Leaving Taloqan, though, is easier said than done. This is the third day we've been stuck here, told hourly that the road to Kabul is still too dangerous to travel. That may be true. The specter of the three journalists killed at Dasht-i-Qala, as well as the rumor of another reporter shot traveling at night on the same roads we crossed over yesterday, hangs heavily over us. Before their deaths, it may have been too easy to be swayed into thinking that the long hours spent drinking tea and eating kabobs in the shadow of Northern Alliance tanks meant the danger here wasn't real. Their killing--as well as the corpses we've seen here--are a reminder of just how quickly banal scenes can turn into real bloodshed.