Life under the Taliban regime

Taliban fighters in Kabul. PHOTO: ERIK PROZES/Postimees

Postimees journalists Erik Prozes and Jaanus Piirsalu will be reporting from Afghanistan over the next seven days.

In addition to the capital Kabul, they will visit several provinces to give a thorough overview in writing and through images of the deepening humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, what the Taliban regime really looks like and to what extent it differs from the first time they were in power in 1996-2001 according to the locals.

Gunmen on every corner in Kabul

One gets the first impression of Kabul at the airport. While a theater of human tragedy as recently as August when the Taliban seized the capital, nothing of the sort can be seen today.

The airport is a true maze of security measures, with several checkpoints and a complicated traffic scheme between concrete blocks.

Kabul airport. PHOTO: Erik Prozes

A man offered to help us fill out forms and find the right doorways as soon as we were out the gate so to speak. He said that he works at the airport and was quite insistent on getting $10 for helping us since he hasn’t been paid since August.

The helper added that there is no sense in getting a job as no public office has been paying people since the Taliban took over. One can at least make a living helping foreigners at the airport. When I offered the man €5, he turned me down, explaining that there was nowhere to exchange currency.

Only one other foreigner flew in with us from Dubai on Ariana Afghan Airlines’ rather, so as not to say extremely, worn-out Boeing.

Waiting at the Taliban offices

Because we ran into trouble securing accreditation necessary for our work, we had to spend quite some time lounging in the halls of Kabul agencies – we spent most of our time waiting as tends to be the norm in the orient.

The wait was longest at the Taliban’s now famous spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid’s office. He currently holds a modest title – deputy minister for information and culture – while his unofficial influence is still considerable. In any case, we were told that if anyone can solve our problem, it is Mujahid.

His office is in the same building that housed the previous authority’s culture ministry. The entrance to the imposing concreter building in the government quarter is well-guarded. Security measures were far more stringent than at the foreign ministry. Another sign of the importance of the man, at least when compared to the Taliban’s foreign minister.

Taliban soldiers in Ministry of Information and Culture. PHOTO: Erik Prozes

We passed through two checkpoints of armed Taliban guards to reach the doors to the office where we had to produce the contents of our bags and were thoroughly patted down by dirty hands. The next security check awaited us on the doorstep of Mr. Mujahid’s office.

Later, when Erik went off to find the toilet and was washing his hands with cold water, he suddenly found three angry-looking men with assault rifles looking intently at him. Erik’s pulse started to race as one of the men grabbed him by the hand and led him to an adjacent restroom and turned on the tap – the water was warm. The rough-looking bunch wanted to help him.

I would say that we saw at least a few dozen armed men walking around the information and culture ministry. Some officials also seemed to have assault rifles with them.

We needed Zabihullah’s okay, three signatures and a letter giving us certain rights to work in Afghanistan stamped. To secure them, we spent the entire morning and part of the afternoon in the mullah’s office.

His approval was chief among the things we needed. Zabihullah’s secretary told us that we had exactly as long as it would take the deputy minister to descend from a fourth floor meeting room to his office on the second floor to make our case. Our local fixer successfully completed the task in that time.

All we had to do was say, “As-Salaam Alaykum” to the important man, place our right hands on our hearts and shake his hand to which he replied, “Everything will be okay!”

We then had to run up and down floors to get our signatures in which process we got a glimpse of Taliban bureaucracy in action.

In the first office, we were sat in a heated room and brought tea and toffee by armed guards who smiled as they watched us drink the tea.

Up next was another wait for a signature in a frigid hallway. The entrance was diligently guarded by a very short man that added to the absurdity of the situation. Three or four other men tried to burst into the office every time he opened the door but were turned away by the dwarfish guard.

After that, we had to spend time in an even colder and almost dark reception room that gradually filled with men also waiting on Zabihullah’s mercy. (We did not see a single woman at the ministry.)

It now became clear why some Afghans had blankets with them. Because the weather is already getting colder (around 10 degrees during the day, with freezing temperatures overnight) and public offices are not heated, wrapping oneself in a blanket while waiting to be seen was indeed the practical thing to do.

We had no blankets and had to brave the cold. We were also offered no more tea. People were sitting in offices, having tea and talking. While I could not understand a word, they must have been discussing important Taliban business.

I found a stack of business cards on a desk behind Zabihullah’s office. They read, “Dr. Mohammad Qasim ‘Wafayezada,’ acting Minister of Information and Culture.” The previous government’s minister. He forgot to take his business cards with him when he escaped. While Taliban had no use for them, no one had bothered to clean them up and throw them away in four months. I took one as a souvenir. The cards were printed on expensive embossed paper.

I found a bunch of art books in Dari in a cupboard when waiting behind another door. Even though the Taliban has no love for fine arts, no one had bothered to throw them away. I suppose they have more important things to do, and it’s a good thing.

Lunch with an assault rife

Security does not seem to be a problem on the streets of Kabul. Considering the sheer number of armored vehicles left behind by the previous regime and the number of Taliban patrols combing the streets, stopping cars and looking inside. Some also looked at our bags and asked whether we had weapons. We sincerely shook our heads.

Kabul. PHOTO: ERIK PROZES/Postimees

We had a heartfelt meeting with some Talibs at an eatery. Hungry after going about their important duties, they had stepped into a respectable-looking express diner-type establishment, just as we had. (Where they got the money to eat there remains a mystery as it is rumored the Taliban is not paying its fighters.)

was immediately reminded of the Luhansk “people’s republic” in 2015 where local fighters also took their assault rifles with them when going to the café. They also drank vodka, of course. The Talibs were much warmer and allowed us to take a picture with them, graciously including the assault rifle in the shot. What an idyllic photograph of Taliban-controlled Kabul! I would never have gotten such a warmhearted photograph in Luhansk.

People said that crime is not a problem in Kabul these days. Anyone caught stealing or robbing is dragged in front of a Taliban court and brutally beaten, our Afghan fixer stated laconically. “I do not remember a time when Kabul was this low on crime,” he said.

This comes as good news for us. It seems that even a foreigner can move around without having to fear much, at least in the daytime. But we have not been able to thoroughly test this theory yet as it is difficult without becoming a target for all manner of beggars who can be quite pushy.

Some figures about Afghanistan

The country is slightly larger than France at 652,000 square kilometers, while its population of an estimated 37.5 million falls short of Poland’s. A quarter of Afghans live in cities, while half of them in Kabul (4.5 million).

Only a little over 6 percent of Afghans are over 55. The median age is just 19.5 years, for one of the lowest figures in the world. Only some African countries are behind Afghanistan in this regard (even though the highest median age of 55 years is in Morocco). Afghanistan is also in the “top” 15 in the world in terms of births and deaths per 1,000 people. The situation is no better when it comes to maternal mortality.

Afghanistan is the world leader in infant mortality. Of every 1,000 babies born alive, an average of 106 die (115 for boys), or roughly every tenth… An Afghan woman gives birth to five children (4.7) on average.

Afghanistan also has the shortest life expectancy in the world at 53 years, with the Central African Republic in second to last place a full two years ahead.

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