Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Ghost Town

The atmosphere is subdued as many residents have left town and local business has declined.
By IWPR Afghanistan
The hospital in central Musa Qala is padlocked, and the district government office has been completely demolished by Taleban militants. The bazaar is quiet, with none of its former bustle.

Foreign air strikes have also done a lot of damage – many houses lie in ruins, and there are big holes in surrounding fields.

Hajji Nazar Mohammad, an elder in the Musa Qala district, said many people had fled the district in fear.

“More than 75 per cent of the residents have gone,” he said. “The only people left are those who couldn’t afford to go. We are in a very bad economic situation.”

One shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, said that his business had fallen by 80 per cent.

“I am lucky, though,” he said. “Most of the other shops have closed completely.”

The shopkeeper seemed nervous, and kept saying he did not want the Taleban to see him talking to me. He was not the only one. A lot of people refused to talk out of fear of the insurgents.

I was accompanied by an armed Taleban guard, who I think was recording my interviews. So no one was saying anything against the insurgents.

Some people complained about a lack of water, and said their gardens and crops had dried up. I saw many gardens in which all the flowers were dead, but I suspected that the owners had left town.

There are no schools open in the district, although some young boys are receiving a religious education in mosques.

The Taleban control the district the same way they did when they were in power in Afghanistan. The only difference is now there are no men from the committee for “the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” patrolling the streets.

“We do not punish people for their hair and beards right now,” explained the Taleban district governor. “But once we take over the country, we will treat people according to the orders of our supreme leader Mullah Omar.”

The governor does not have his own office, and I met him at someone’s house.

The insurgents have their own FM radio station covering Musa Qala district. Like other Taleban institutions, the station does not operate out of a particular office. The mobile radio station is on the air from seven in the morning until midday and then from three to seven in the evening.

The station, which has just two members of staff, even takes commercial advertisements.

One thing the Taleban have done is establish security in Musa Qala. When it is time to go and pray, shopkeepers can leave their doors open. No one would dare steal anything.

People are pleased that the Taleban have brought security, but at night they fear air strikes by the international forces.

That is one of the reasons why the militants do not maintain permanent offices and meet in secret locations.

The Afghan authorities claim that there are foreign Taleban in Musa Qala, but in the 24 hours that I was there I could not find any, although I made great efforts.

Local residents and Taleban members deny that there are foreigners among them. There are men from other areas of Afghanistan, though – southern areas like Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul, and even from as far afield as Ghor and Faryab in the north.

The town’s residents seemed unconcerned about the presence of these Afghan outsiders. All they want is for the schools to open, for the Taleban to allow health workers into the area, and reconstruction work to get under way.

But Taleban officials say they will not allow international projects in areas under their control. The international community is not implementing real projects, they say.

I left the district with the help of the Taleban militants. But I was really afraid on the way back. Family members told me the Afghan police had come round asking for me. Then I learned that two other reporters had been arrested for travelling to Musa Qala. (See Police Target Journalists After Taleban Trip, ARR No. 272, 8-Nov-07.)

So I did not go home. Coming back had turned out to be more dangerous than going into Taleban country.

Aziz Ahmad Shafe is a journalist based in Helmand.

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