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The Taliban – one year on

HERAT / What does Afghanistan's Herat look like one year after the Taliban took over? Herat is the example of what Afghanistan could look like – as the city has 780 places on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This report gives a look from both the 1970s and today.


When the Americans arrived here in 2001, one in three Afghans was below the starvation threshold. When the Americans pulled out a year ago, it had become one in two Afghans – half. Now, after the Taliban's sanctions, 96 percent of the population lives below the hunger threshold: One in one is without food.

"If you're looking for something typical of Afghanistan, take this one," said the scrap dealer, holding out a copy of the travel guide Lonely Planet which lay among British military effects and helmets.

1973: The hippie route, the travel route to India for young Europeans. When traveling from Iran, Herat was the first stop in Afghanistan. To this day, Herat is still bright, colorful and alive. Herat, is the example of what Afghanistan could look like without its countless wars. Nevertheless, the first child we spot has plastic and not schoolbooks in his rucksack. The young boy is not on his way home from school, but is looking through rubbish. Because here the problems are far from over.

"The foreigners became our misfortune"

In the West we imagine that Afghanistan. is a kind of backwards country of violence and misery. But the street on which the Jami Masjid mosque is located tells a different story: There are a number of antique shops in the area, and all of them are run by Afghans. "The foreigners became our misfortune," says Riza Habibi. He refers to the Soviet Union and 1979. "Afghanistan was unique. Especially Herat, one of the finest oases on the Silk Road. And later, our Florence in our Renaissance. Herat has always been a meeting point for artists, including women," he says.

Habibi stands surrounded by silverware, carpets and precious stones. He also has two bottles, because Afghanistan is famous for its grapes and in its time was also famous for its wine. "The Islamists say we must return to the traditions, to the original. But who decides what the original is?” he says as his son pulls out a rubab. The instrument is a kind of traditional Afghan lute. The son closes the door before he starts playing, because it is now forbidden. He may be put in prison.

The hotels

In old Polaroid photos we see girls in shorts standing smiling in the bar at the Behzad Hotel. "It was right there," says Mahdi Sakhi (61), pointing to a lamppost: "We danced until dawn." As he speaks, I notice his 19-year-old son staring at me. He has never seen a person from the West who is not a soldier. The son uses crutches, he stepped on a land mine. Here are 10 million unexploded bombs and mines – remnants of the war in the wake of 9/11 to capture Osama am shop. In the end, bin Laden was killed by forces from Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, two countries in close cooperation with the United States.

This is how NATO looks from this part of the world. For all those killed on "our" side, in the West, there is a name and a photo or a news article. We don't even know the number of Afghan victims – no one brought them up anywhere.

“Herat, one of the finest oases on the Silk Road. And later, our Florence in our Renaissance. Herat has always been a gathering point for artists, including women."

The other formerly popular hotel, The Pardees, still exists, but is now within Herat's municipal boundary. The Taliban flag flies outside the hotel. No one could predict President Ashraf Ghani's escape. Not even the Taliban.


The Taliban took back power in the country overnight on August 15, 2021, and one year later it is still not clear what they want. Girls' schools are closed, for example. But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has two daughters studying in Doha. What will a government look like? Will there be an election? A parliament? What about the courts, or the economy?

Now decrees have been issued. It is up to the ulama, the learned men of Islam, to explain what an emirate is. But after the scholars gathered in June, they only stated that the Afghans have the right to live in the Afghan way.

"But they have achieved one thing, which we appreciate, and that is safety," says fruit seller Gholam Karimi. "It's the first time our children have seen Herat, before we were barricaded in our home," he says.

It is actually startling: Many Afghans walk around with mobile phones and Google Maps. Now they are taking selfies at the castle, the bazaar or one of the other 780 places in Herat that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the next moment they are taking selfies at the house of Ismail Khan – one of the warlords who came to power with the help of the Americans. Herat was his kingdom, but the Taliban forced him into exile.

Many Afghans walk around with mobile phones and Google Maps.

The theater in the city, which was famous for its performances of Shakespeare, has been razed to the ground, but that happened five years ago. "Here it's mostly about social pressure," says one of the actors, who has become a taxi driver: "Herat was a city for open-minded people, but now the whole of Afghanistan is quite conservative, and the Taliban reflects this. It was not the Taliban who introduced the burqa, nor did they force anyone to wear it. Coming out of Kabul, the burqa is a common sight. Frankly speaking, women don't wear the burqa, they stay at home," he says.

The international community condemned the hijab decrees, but in Afghanistan they were not so eager to condemn: "Or, we praised them, because there is no problem. All women wear the hijab, and the Taliban should rather concentrate on the economy.” He sighs: "I wish it was just about the Taliban." For those who really matter here are the older ones – mashran.

Pashtuns and how to dress

Decrees on how to dress are to be regarded as recommendations. "But that's the point. You never know what's allowed or not," I'm told by two 26-year-olds in high heels under long, black gloves at Fifty-Fifty, a fast-food place with the city's best hamburger. Before, you could only get traditional Afghan food here, Kabuli palau with meat, rice and raisins. The boys on the left, the girls on the right, and a wall between them. In the old polaroid pictures, they are sitting together in carriages that were pulled by horses. Today they have to be in the park on different days – not at the same time. "This is not Islam," they say. "Everyone knows the Koran here. We are all Muslims. It is perhaps the Taliban who cannot do this, who confuse Muslims with Pashtuns and their traditions."

26-year-olds in high heels under long, black gloves.

All Taliban are Pashtuns, but Pashtuns make up only 42 percent of the people of Afghanistan. “And now your father is responsible for you. Not you. That's why you don't see us on the street; we don't even have the freedom to be arrested," say the young women.

Italian initiatives

But no one misses the Americans. Or the Italians. Herat was under their control. Here they spent 46 million dollars on civil and military projects. "Look around," says Zalmay Safa, head of the Ministry of Culture, "do you think a city like Herat needs organizations to dig wells? And if so, why should I care what they build? Let's first talk about what they have destroyed," he says.

For every dollar spent, nine dollars were wasted or stolen. He reads through the list of Italian initiatives that I found online: “The ambulance service, yes it is active. The minaret? No, it was never restored. The airport ... was never built. Rail network to Iran? No. There is no railway. The road... it's not finished, is it? Why is it on the list? It doesn't go anywhere," says Safa.

"You just wanted our kidneys."

Fifty years after Europeans first discovered Herat, they still come here. Now to buy a kidney.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has two daughters studying in Doha.

If you travel out of the city centre, it looks as if the city is disintegrating, literally. First come the marble houses, then the stone houses, then the concrete houses, followed by the brick houses and finally houses built in clay. Then come the ruins of the mud houses. On to the village of Shenshayba, where a swarm of barefoot children buzz around us. They hope we are Taliban, they hope we have bread with us.

Forty people in the village have already sold one of painne sine, for 2600 dollars. At Loqman Hakmin, a center for transplants headed by Farid Ahmad Ejaz, I meet a doctor who studied in Italy. He hopes Italy want to fund a cancer center and ask me if I can ask readers for donations. He was arrested for organ trafficking and has been released on bail.

"I have pain everywhere," says Ali (19). He's worse off. "I sold my life," he says. After the kidney operation, he didn't see a thing from the doctors. To afford medical treatment now, he has to beg for money. To us, the foreigners, he says: "You just wanted our kidneys."

Translated by Iril Kolle


Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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