Other residents of the biggest city in eastern Afghanistan share their concern. Ajmal Khan, a young university graduate, said he moved his family of eight from Jalalabad to his native Kama district a few days after the bombing began on October 7. But, he said, his mother, sisters and brothers felt unsafe even in rural Kama. So the family eventually decided to head for Pakistan. A tough journey through mountainous terrain had enabled them to illegally enter Pakistan, and set up a new home in Peshawar.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Signs of Afghanistan's latest war are evident all around Jalalabad: Tightened security, checkpoints on roads, pick-up trucks loaded with Taliban fighters and their ammunition, electricity blackouts and a strictly-enforced night-time curfew are some of the more obvious ones. The official Radio Shariat, its airtime already crowded with Taliban propaganda, has started broadcasting patriotic battle poetry. As if the scars of 23 years of fighting, triggered by the communist revolution in April 1978 and fuelled by the Soviet invasion of December 1979, weren't enough, the Afghans are now entering another indefinite round of suffering.
The Taliban was clearly in a generous mood when our group of 23 international journalists reached Jalalabad last week. This was the first time that the foreign media had been allowed to set foot in Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan since the current conflict began. Their primary purpose in allowing the two-day visit was to the show to the world the civilian casualties caused by the U.S. air strikes. But Governor Mullah Abdul Kabir, considered number three in the Taliban hierarchy after supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, agreed to the reporters' request to visit the Jalalabad airport, a frequent target of U.S. fighter planes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. His decision was surprising because the airport is also a military airbase.
The journalists were taken to a part of the airfield where a radar station had been hit by a cruise missile and turned into ashes. In an interview with TIME, Mullah Kabir explained that he wanted the journalists to visit both military and civilian targets and compare the damage. "After visiting the airport and the Khrum village where about 200 innocent people were killed, you can judge that we have suffered more civilian than military losses," he argued.
Khrum, nestled in the Torghar Mountain range about 20 miles Jalalabad, was in ruins after suffering direct hits recently. The unexploded bomb and bomb and missile shrapnel littering the destroyed village were clear indications of an air attack. The stench of death hung in the air as corpses of cattle and goats lay unburied. Over two dozen fresh graves were visible in Khrum.
Survivors said some of their dead were buried in neighboring villages, but most, they said, had not yet been retrieved from under the rubble. I calculated that the number of dead was less than 200 probably around 100. But irrespective of the numbers, the reality staring us in the face was a whole village razed to the ground only because it was mistaken for an Osama bin Laden training camp or a Taliban ammunition depot. Khrum's location in the Torghar, where the Afghan mujahedeen had established several bases while fighting the Soviet occupation, brought about its misfortune. Villagers claimed these camps were no longer operational but obviously the Americans think otherwise hence the repeated air strikes.
On our way to Khrum, earlier, the Taliban had stage-managed three small but noisy demonstrations by school children. Led by their teachers and some village elders, the boys shouted anti-U.S. and pro-Taliban slogans and vowed to wage jihad for the glory of Islam and defense of Afghanistan. Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, was also a target of their ire for helping the U.S. attack Afghanistan. In fact, some of the villagers in Khrum and in roadside bazaars along the way made no secret at their displeasure over the presence of Pakistani journalists in our group. Earlier, aggrieved Khrum villagers had tried to attack Western reporters with the spades and shovels they had been using to remove rubble of their fallen houses. First you drop bombs and then come here to take pictures of our misery, one shouted.
Back in Jalalabad, the Taliban took us to the Sihat-i-Aama Hospital where 17 injured Khrum villagers were receiving treatment. Among them was three-year old Rahmat Bibi, her legs broken and her head bandaged, crying aloud while asking to be taken to her dead mother, one of the victims of the air strikes. One-year-old Jan Bibi and her three-year-old brother Gul Khan were lying in the same hospital bed, unaware that they had been orphaned. Doctors said they were short of drugs, which wasn't unusual in a country that has been at war for the past 23 years.
The Taliban didn't show us all their military installations that were hit in the air raids. They were also reluctant to take us to the bazaar in Jalalabad to talk to common people. The reason they offered was that the people were very angry following the U.S. attack and it would be difficult for the Taliban to ensure the security of reporters, especially those from Western countries.
I managed to visit the bazaar after getting special permission from the Taliban Governor. The shopkeepers complained of a slump in business while the customers said they couldn't afford the price hike. Most shops were open and food and fuel weren't in short supply. But the people said the daytime bombing had badly affected life in the city. Still, both shopkeepers and customers rushed out onto the street to watch the U.S. aircraft carry out their routine, morning bombing. Nobody was running for shelter. Instead, they were pointing at the skies looking for the jets flying at high altitude. Why did the Afghans have such a fatalistic approach to life? The reply from one Abdur Rahman: "After two decades of war, we have become used to bombings. Most Afghans no longer fear death."