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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 12:38 GMT
Afghans look to the future
A Kabul market
Markets are bustling once more in the Afghan capital

A year ago Kabul was empty, deserted and frightened.

The Americans had been bombing the city with great intensity every night.

I have just come back from Iran - life is good here

Returning refugee
The Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies knew that the inhabitants hated them, and were looking for ways of escape.

The sanctions which the UN, at American insistence, had imposed on Afghanistan had had a serious effect on the life of the country, and particularly of Kabul itself.

Every merchant who could leave the city had long done so.

The Taleban's controls over everyday life were ferocious.

BBC World Affairs Editor, John Simpson
Simpson was one of the first journalists into Kabul
Thousands of people had left the country, afraid of the patrols which arrested or beat men for showing signs that they had clipped their beards, or women for showing, no matter how accidentally, a wrist or an ankle as they hurried through the streets.

The only fuel that was readily available in Kabul was wood.

There were scarcely any cars to be seen.

By eight o'clock at night the brightest lights in the streets came from oil lamps in the windows of houses, and the loudest noise was the barking of dogs.

New optimism

The contrast with Kabul today is total.

Nearly two million refugees have returned from the camps in Pakistan and Iran, and the streets of Kabul and of every town and city in the country are packed with people.

Children near ruins in Kabul
Afghans are rebuilding
The markets sell everything now - good quality fruit and meat, clothes from Pakistan, spare parts for cars - and you have to push your way through the shoppers to get close to the stalls.

There are serious traffic jams.

Kabul has become a real city again and people are remarkably optimistic.

"I have just come back from Iran," a young man with the Asiatic features of a Hazara told me in moderately good English.

The Hazaras are supposedly descended from the soldiers whom Genghis Khan left to garrison Afghanistan.

"Life is good here." Had he got a job? "No, but I will hope to get one." Soon? "Of course soon. This is a new country."

Political challenges

As I wandered round the market I couldn't find anyone who seemed depressed about the future.

They reminded me of a young farmer and his wife whom I had accompanied back to their smallholding in the Shomali plain, north of Kabul, a few weeks ealier.

Everything they had left behind them when they fled in 1995 had been destroyed.

Yet after their gruelling five-hour journey they set themselves to work directly they arrived, clearing the rubble which the Taleban looters and the American bombing had made of their house.

Why all this enthusiasm, this desire to start life again, when the political situation in Afghanistan seems very far from settled?

Government ministers have been murdered, the president himself is lucky to have escaped an attempt on his life.

Factionalism and the return of the warlords is never far away. Most Afghans believe the United States has lost all real interest in them.

New start

But Afghans are used to bad or ineffectual government.

No regime has ever controlled much more than the main cities and the roads which connect them.

Being ignored by the outside world is nothing new to them.

They are free now to trade and prosper in the ways they know best; and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity.

The Taleban, who tried to take Afghanistan back to the early days of Islam, have vanished without trace - you can't find anyone now who admits to having supported them.

Al-Qaeda has been hunted out of the country.

Things are not peaceful in Afghanistan, but they rarely have been.

Afghans are famous in Central Asia for their hard work, and now they have been given a new start.

They are already taking full advantage of it.


Political uncertainty






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