“The Italians in Bala Murghab? They didn’t belong there.” Noorani Sahib is head of the media department for all of northern Afghanistan: “This includes the provinces of Balkh, Jowzyan, Samangan, Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, Badghis.” His office is in a central area of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh. It is a regional hub, a junction of commerce, energy and travel, inside and outside Afghanistan. Less than two hours away is the border with Uzbekistan, Hairatan and the “Friendship Bridge.” If you head west, you reach the border with Turkmenistan.
The one-story building is manned by three militants. They’ve got brightly colored clothes, military vests/wasqats, Kalashnikovs. One has long hair. Noorani is not even 30 years old; the beard makes him look older. In the Taliban’s shadow government, he did the same job. Now he welcomes guests in a small lounge, on a comfortable armchair, with a checkered bookcase behind him. Next to him is an old man reclining. Outside there are people sorting the visitors. Two doors down is the headquarters of the Bakhtar government news agency.
“We are four journalists here,” says the director, Fareed Faizal. Until August 15, they reported on the exploits of the Islamic Republic, of the Ghani government. Afterwards, those of the Islamic Emirate. They kept their jobs. “Today’s news? The successes of the Emirate,” replies the older journalist. Which are those? Embarrassed silence. “Amnyat.” Security.
“Once you get a permit in Kabul, you can walk around as you like. Afghanistan is safe now,” claims Noorani, who comes from Bala Murghab in Badghis. For years, Italian soldiers had been trying to take over the district. To no avail. Some Italians died. War with foreigners is an age-old reality for Noorani. Victory for the Taliban was inevitable, he says. “Afghanistan is no place for foreign soldiers.”
The Taliban won. But Noorani’s power is fragile. Center-periphery relations are not yet rooted. The Taliban’s control structure is territorial. Low-level soldiers and officials are from the north/northwest of the country. But the impression is that the local leaders fear trouble with the central leadership. What’s more, the state machine is running, with much effort, only thanks to the officials of the old government.
“One day, a mawlawi, a religious man, came. He saw what kind of work it was, and told me to stay,” confides a senior civil servant from another department. The transition has been delicate. A few officials stayed because they had no choice, with no way out and no good connections with foreigners: “I don’t know what could happen to me tomorrow.” That official sent email after email, without receiving replies.
“Democracy, democracy, democracy. Then they left us here. Thirty-five million people abandoned.” A man of imposing stature, “Mohammed” (not his real name) was arrested. He spent seven days in jail. A petition from family members and residents got him out. He says the Taliban had mistaken him for a soldier. He doesn’t know what he will do. “You have to start from scratch. It wasn’t the government that came down, but the whole system, the tanzim,” he says. For him and his friends, the Taliban coming to power is “a plan by the Pashtuns to monopolize power. To exclude Uzbeks, Tajiks, everyone else. Who wanted it? The Taliban, Ghani, Pakistan, the Americans!”
“We are depressed,” says Maroof Torabi. He sports whiskers and a beard, a political science graduate of Aria Private University just before the Taliban took power, who wanted to be a diplomat. “Now? I don’t know. I don’t see a future.” He says economic problems are compounded by psychological ones. “Ours is not an easy country.”
For “Abdullah” (not his real name), Mazar-e-Sharif is a refuge. He worked in Kabul for the Ministry of Public Affairs. His department received foreign funding. When the Taliban started asking for information about former employees, he fled here. “If they assure me that nothing will happen to me, I will come back.”
For others it seems impossible.
Wahid Sadat was a journalist for ATV, the television of Marshal and then General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a symbol of resistance to the Taliban, who emerged defeated but alive from the last offensive that brought them to power. “The Taliban caught me in a district in Balkh and took me to prison here in Mazar for two days. They beat me severely.” Released, he fled to Kabul. He has been back in the city for four days. “I change houses every night, I’m rarely seen around.” They know he’s here. “I get threats on WhatsApp.” His crime? “I used to work for Sada-e-Azadi, the military’s broadcaster.” A small part of the information and communication system funded by ISAF/NATO.
The Taliban propaganda involves their presence in the streets, here mostly limited to the central area around the so-called “blue mosque,” the symbol of the city. And there’s also a merchandising campaign. White flags with black writing can be seen even on the trolleys of corncob sellers.
On one of the sides of the mosque, on a central traffic island, there is an official store. It sells gifts: flags, stickers, pens, t-shirts, military hats, teacups with the faces of Mullah Omar, founder of the movement, or of Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current Amir Ul-muminin, leader of the faithful. Two days ago came the news that he held a public meeting in a madrasa in Kandahar. But there are no images. Certainly an attempt to invalidate the rumors that he is dead.
At the restaurant of the popular Nazargah hotel, in front of the mosque, a young Taliban man enters holding the hands of two children in colorful clothes. He pushes them over to a tent, a space for women and families.
He kneels down on the raised floor of the hall. He puts down his Kalashnikov. He has the prayer mat brought to him. He gets the direction wrong. After he is corrected, he recites the prayers. He stays around to observe the foreign guest. He comes to join us at the table. On his wrist is a massive watch, a large ring on his right hand. He takes out his cell phone. He types something into Google Translate: “I’m from Samangan and I’m a Taliban soldier. And you?”
“If it were up to me, they wouldn’t be in power, or even in Afghanistan.” Farkoonda Moradi is a slender 22-year-old girl. She wears a yellow and black dress, like the shawl around her face, imitation Christian Dior. She comes to the meeting with us accompanied by her mother. “I was studying Dari literature at a private university. I was working in the office of the department of tribal and border affairs here in Mazar. I used to edit a monthly magazine in three languages.” Now she is no longer working. She is no longer studying. “My colleagues tried to go to the office, but they were told they didn’t know who they were. We want to ask to go back to work two days a week.” With the Taliban, it’s difficult. “I ask that they let us work. We want to choose how to dress, what to do, what to study. It wasn’t easy before, but we were freer.”
A few days ago, there was a public protest by female activists in the city. It was repressed by the Taliban. How many ended up in jail is not clear. On Wednesday, however, about 15 girls organized a protest at home. With faces covered by masks, they had clear messages: “We want to participate again.” In the evening, the central streets around the Blue Mosque became deserted. A few trucks, a few cabs. Three members of the Taliban special forces were guarding the intersections.