QUETTA, Pakistan – Some Afghans who fled in recent days say Taliban authorities are dragging young men off to the army and desperately trying to prop up collapsing economies in crippled cities.
Some told of sons and husbands shot without explanation by Taliban militiamen in a growing mood of fear and confusion. Many said only poverty, illness and age prevent a greater exodus.
"We'd be happy if America bombed Afghanistan — we just want to get rid of the Taliban," said Nazir Hussain, 50. "There's no choice left except to flee."
Hussain and his family walked 15 days from Kabul to Quetta, crossing the border in the wild mountains east of Kandahar. Most said they bribed Pakistani border guards to enter at closed checkpoints.
Many thousands of people are camped just beyond the Pakistan border to the west of here, too poor to buy their way across, refugees said.
In Quetta, people settle in ragged clusters wherever they can, begging for money to make pots of rice. Others jam into the homes of family members or friends who came before.
Nazir Hussain is among 200 people who sheltered in a half-built mosque outside Quetta until Monday when the owner forced them to move to an open-air square nearby.
All are Hazara, one of four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Taliban are largely Pashtun, traditional enemies of the Hazara.
In a few Afghan cities, conditions are less harsh, and as fears of an American attack abate, life there is said by travelers to be returning to what passes for normalcy.
"Many people had left Kabul and Jalalabad, but they are beginning to return," said Mohammed Yusuf, 22, a truck driver who crossed the Torkham border Monday.
"In Jalalabad, the bazaars were open, and people are trying to get on with their lives as best they can," he said.
For many others, however, life under Taliban rule has become unbearable.
Ghulam Hussein, grizzled and stooped at 55, had put up with four years of drought and the Taliban, but he decided to leave Kabul after a final double blow.
His 18-year-old son, Ramat Ali, was killed on Sept. 9. "I don't know how they put him to death or where he is buried," Hussein said. "I only saw his body being dragged away."
That same day, his 22-year-old son, Ismat Ullah, was taken away to fight for the Taliban, he said. He has no news of him since.
Others said forced recruitment increased after Sept. 11.
Syed Anwer, 40, who arrived four days ago, said Taliban bands in Kabul had forced several young men to join their ranks.
"After the World Trade Center attack, it was terrible in Kabul," said Majeed Issa, 22. "No food, no work."
Outsiders are besieged immediately by Afghans reaching the end of their strength. They crowd around to tell their stories.
"We finally decided to flee the cruelty of the Taliban, but they murdered my husband as we were leaving," said a woman who uses a single name, Rozhuma, from a village near Bamian province southwest of Kabul.
Each time Taliban officials approached her village, all 50 farm families hid, she said. When crops failed and there was nothing to eat, nearly all decided to flee.
Rozhuma said six children, a woman and three men died on the way, slipping off narrow trails in high mountain passes. She worked at odd jobs until she made enough to bribe border guards and reach Pakistan.
"Now we have nothing except God almighty," she said, clutching a worn cotton shawl tightly around her face.
Elsewhere around Quetta, refugees of other ethnic groups tell similar stories.
In a crumbling mud compound, Ahmed Shah, 32, a Pashtun, recounted the nine days and nights he spent walking out of the mountains north of Kabul when fighting approached his home. Two of his three children died.
At the Chaman border, he said, sympathetic Pakistani guards let him across. The body of his daughter, Fatima, amounted to a visa.
When asked about the Taliban, Shah skirted politics. After so much killing, hunger and upheaval, he said, Afghans now only want peace.
In the Hazara camp, a woman who gave her name only as Laila arrived three days earlier from Bamian with her husband. He had been in a Taliban prison, she said, but he escaped during the uproar that followed the attacks in America.
Another woman named Mariam produced an International Red Cross ration card that had not been any use to her for six months. Relief, often disrupted, has all but stopped in Afghanistan since Sept. 11.
Mariam's husband was killed in 1997 in Kabul, she said, but she managed to support her six daughters and one son. When she could no longer find food, she said, she walked her family 15 days to Pakistan.
For days, refugees have sat near the mosque, each dressed in the only clothes they had, small bundles of teapots and other treasures in cloth bags at their sides.
On Monday, police moved them away. Nek Bakht wept quietly as she found some space in a clearing among ramshackle buildings a few blocks away. "The mosque made me feel safe," she said.
When visitors approach, refugees leap to their feet with photographs of loved ones, some tiny thumbnail portraits and others in elaborate frames. All are desperate for news, and most suspect the worst.
Abdul Sattar, 35, who sold vegetables from a cart in Kabul, looked tidy in a leisure suit, but it is his last possession.
Sattar was in Kabul at the time of the attacks against the United States. He did not know what might follow, but he wanted no part of it. He got to Peshawar in three days and, with his last money took the train to Quetta.
Now he waits. Maybe the aging king can return, he said, so that Afghans can find enough peace to put their country back together.
"It is enough," Sattar said. "We want the Americans to attack. We are desperate. We need our own homeland back."