Afghanistan Is Free of Taliban, But Old Demons Remain

Just off a dirty hospital corridor where heavily pregnant women pace and grimace in pain, the nursery is full of newborns squirming and squalling in tight swaddling.

But one tiny bundle in the corner is smaller, stiller than the rest — a baby girl whose birthright is a tragic past and a perilous future.

Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate is among the highest anywhere, and her mother, a village woman who had no access to medical care during her pregnancy, died delivering her. So tenuous is the child's hold on life that she does not yet have a name — nurses simply call her "the little one."

In many ways, the infant's plight mirrors that of her homeland. For Afghanistan, the terror attacks of Sept. 11 marked the beginning of a new era — one born in sorrow and shadowed by a host of old ills.

Six momentous months after the towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down, Afghanistan has thrown off the shackles of the Taliban, but not those of poverty and deprivation. Aid is pouring in, but preventable deaths still blight each day.

Armed with the world's good wishes, a new government is struggling to chart a course toward unity and democracy, but bitter internal rivalries, jolts of lawlessness and an undercurrent of violence threaten to dash those hopes.

Kabul, the capital, exudes an enduring and endearing human vitality — even its notorious traffic jams are a welcome sign of life returning to once-silent streets — but few places in the world can match Afghanistan's sheer brokenness as a nation.

The clock is ticking on British leadership of an international peacekeeping force, seen as an important stabilizing factor, and on the government of Hamid Karzai, whose six-month mandate expires in June.

"What has changed here in Afghanistan? Everything and nothing," said Alberto Cairo, an Italian who has spent many years running a clinic in Kabul that provides prosthetic limbs for some of the thousands of Afghans maimed each year by land mines.

"Doors are opening everywhere, and Afghanistan can again be part of the world. But people are as poor as before, there is no peace, there are mines everywhere, and justice does not exist," he said. "Everyone thinks, 'Oh, the Taliban are gone, so poof, everything will bloom like a flower.' That is not realistic."

Despite the pitfalls, heartening signs of revival can be seen everywhere.

A landmark Kabul girls' school that was turned into a boys' seminary during Taliban times again echoes with the sound of female voices reciting lessons. Soccer teams play before cheering crowds in Kabul's stadium, where the Taliban once staged executions. Joyous weddings, replete with once-forbidden music and dance, are commonplace again.

"The changes in the country as a whole are also bringing changes in the home, the family, the things that women can dream for themselves," said Shukria Barekzai, a lively 29-year-old who has just started a women's weekly magazine.

Barekzai received visitors as she chatted with a woman poet named Samanbo, who continued to write during the Taliban years and now wants to publish her latest work in the magazine. She's 103 years old.

Even the most enormous tasks are being tackled with calm, patience — and a long view.

On the desolate Shomali plain north of Kabul, international aid groups and local officials are trying to rehabilitate the network of elaborate underground irrigation tunnels that once made these dusty flatlands bloom.

Six years ago, the Taliban, a militia whose members were predominantly ethnic Pashtuns, drove out the area's mainly Tajik farmers, bulldozing wells, uprooting vineyards, laying waste to fruit orchards. Now the villagers are coming back home.

"You cannot imagine how beautiful it was, how green," said a 70-year-old farmer named Mohammed Aref.

In the middle of what was once a watermelon field, he was helping the aid group CARE locate old irrigation channels to be dug out. It is a backbreaking job, carried out one bucketful at a time. On this day, workers were using a wooden wheel to crank up loads of dirt from what had been a deep, pure well.

"It will take ten years, probably, to make it the way it was once," Aref said. "I don't know if I will be alive to see it, but my children will."

In a newly reopened Kabul bookstore, Shah Mohammed was putting up new shelves and unpacking crates of books, many of them hidden away during the Taliban years.

"People want to read all different kinds of things now," he said. "Nothing gives me more pleasure than when someone wants to find a book they could not have looked at during those times, and I can pull it out and say to them, 'Here. Enjoy it."'

There is ready acknowledgment, though, that Afghanistan's troubles did not begin with the Taliban. Setting the stage for the rise of the harsh Islamic regime was the country's 1992-96 civil war, "and that is something we all need to remember, and accept some responsibility for," said Mohammed Afzal Banowal, 60, the deputy chancellor of Kabul University.

Reminders of those terrible years are all around him. During the civil war, the university's veterinary school was leveled, rockets punched holes in the president's office, and rival militias occupied different parts of the campus at various times.

The university will reopen this month with young women back in the classroom for the first time since the Taliban took power. Teachers fired by the militia have been reinstated, and forbidden reference books are back on the shelves.

Conditions are still primitive, with many classrooms lacking chalk and blackboards, the science department without a functioning laboratory and shattered windows only just now being replaced. Banowal dismissed such troubles with a wave of his hand.

"I am so happy, especially for the girls," he said. "Our beautiful university gives us hope for the future. We were in a dark place, and now we have come out into the light."