“To Hairatan?” On the boulevard outside the Termez train station, the taxi driver is spot on. Here in the deep south of Uzbekistan, people come as tourists, visiting the archaeological sites and mausoleums of this sleepy city—but we are not in the tourist season. Or they come to cross the border into Afghanistan—and for that, it’s “peak season.” Since mid-July, when the Taliban came to power and international flights to the Afghan capital were cancelled, the route from Tashkent—the capital of Uzbekistan, where President Shavkvat Mirziyoyev has just been re-elected—to Termez and then to Hairatan, via Samarkand, is particularly busy.
Quite a few foreigners have crossed the “Friendship Bridge” in recent weeks. When the Soviet occupation troops entered Afghanistan in 1979, the bridge did not exist. It was there ten years later, when they withdrew, defeated by the mujaheddin. Famous photos show a line of tanks passing across the bridge. Waiting for them, on the Soviet side, are red flags and a host of journalists.
More than 30 years later, U.S. troops have left the country by air. No salute, no iconic photo. Journalists today are walking across the “Friendship Bridge” in the opposite direction. Just like back then, under the metal bridge, the Amu Darya river flows slowly with its muddy sediments—the river the Romans called Oxus, originating in the Pamir and that human whims have transformed into a border.
However, this time the Taliban are in power. Fighters in a war they called “holy,” guerrillas unknown to many Afghans, for years they have built up a particular image. Now they rule the country. The imaginary is reality. They have power. Including the basic but crucial power of putting a stamp on passports.
“Are you a journalist? The office is over there.” At the far end of the bridge, on the Afghan side of the border, a couple of young Taliban men are passing the time with their eyes glued to their phones, in the heat of the late October sun. In the small registration room, there is a young official. He represents the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A government that claims sovereignty, but which no state in the world recognizes, as of yet. The official was born here, in Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the capital.
The personnel manning the border post are from Kandahar, the historical stronghold of the movement. They are local manpower, from the South—the elite. The passports are stamped. There are fast, not particularly scrupulous controls. Foreign journalists are given special treatment. Their Afghan colleagues are treated quite differently. Those among them who could have already left the country. The others are taking measures to protect themselves. Some of them have suffered beatings and whippings. As we enter Afghanistan, in the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa, journalists are protesting: the Taliban have made censorship directives official. In Kabul, a women’s protest is being banned and dispersed.
After the border post, there are the collective cabs that shuttle us to Mazar-e-Sharif, an important commercial hub in a country that for years has grown up with a wartime economy, that for decades has relied on other people’s money and that today is on its knees. Two entrepreneurs in their early thirties are travelling with us in the cab. One of them has been living in Tashkent for five years. He is returning to visit his family. “I go to Mazar, then take a bus from there to Kabul. Before, it could have been a gamble to travel by land.”
The same thing is repeated by the reddish-bearded militant we meet at the first of the four checkpoints along the road to Mazar: “Journalist? Tell them that now people are travelling everywhere. Not like when there were foreign soldiers. It was dangerous back then!” He does not mention that the dangers came precisely from the Taliban themselves. The focus is the well-trodden refrain: we bring you security, give us your freedom. The Taliban’s social contract. “These people are capable of bringing down everything, even the sanctuary of Hazrat Ali,” the “blue mosque” that is the symbol of the city—says one of the two entrepreneurs, with both irony and concern.
With the Taliban coming to power, Washington has blocked the assets of the Afghan Central Bank deposited at the Federal Reserve in New York. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have frozen planned money transfers. The economy is in a nosedive. UN agencies are warning of structural collapse. During the G20 in Rome, Suhail Shaheen, former spokesman of the Taliban delegation in Qatar, is reminding the “greats of the world” that $1.2 billion were pledged during peace talks in Doha and must arrive soon. He also mentions the money promised to Kabul at the last donor conference before the regime change, in November 2020 in Geneva. But those were other times indeed. They were certainly not happy ones. But today, they are dark.
“We are very worried. Every family’s savings are running low. Once you run out, what do you do? There is no work here,” argues Shahzad, a young activist, who is waiting to see what he will do. What he can do.
Meanwhile, we see Mazar-e-Sharif, as lively as ever. The streets leading to the mosque are packed with people. Stalls upon stalls, clothes, fabrics, and on the southwestern side vegetables and fruits, with pomegranates in season. The Taliban are there and making their presence seen—“but much less than in the early days.”
They are manning the entrances to the shrine, they sit drinking tea in the outdoor chaikhana; one can see them at the Mansoor restaurant, where they had never been seen before. Mostly young, many with long hair and beards, they move in groups of two or three, always carrying weapons. Their white flag with the black letters of the shahada, the profession of Islamic faith, is just about everywhere. Even on the hideous bell towers built a few years ago on either side of the sanctuary.
At night, the mosque is illuminated. The electricity comes from Uzbekistan, across the “Friendship Bridge.” Afghanistan’s debt is enormous. “We will pay,” assures the Islamic Emirate.
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