Afghanistan: once again the saddest place on earth

The siege of Qala-I-Jangi on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif in late November 2001 resulted in one of the most horrific war atrocities of the modern age.
The massacre raised questions about the commitment of Afghanistan’s new rulers and their international sponsors to the rule of law, and cemented General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s reputation as a brutal and ruthless warlord.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of Taliban fighters, mostly from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and the Arab states, were killed when the US fired missiles and dropped bombs on Dostum’s 19th century mud fortress, where they had fled after escaping custody. Others were burned to death when Northern Alliance soldiers sprayed fuel from tankers on a school building where they were hiding, and then sprayed it with gunfire to set it alight. Many more were locked in containers to suffocate in the stifling heat or to be dropped from helicopters to another form of certain death. The foreign fighters reportedly killed those Afghans among them who wanted to surrender as the eight-day siege dragged on.
There was no mercy shown during that week I spent crouched outside the Qala-I-Jangi, feeling as if I was living a George MacDonald Fraser novel and half expecting to see Harry Flashman slithering through the dirt to save his own hide.
British Special Forces roared around in utility trucks, threatening to shoot journalists who filmed them; US Special Forces holed up in the sprawling compounds of minor warlords in downtown Mazar, living on their own ready-made rations; B2 bombers circled overhead; and armed CIA agents strode the walls of the fort barking orders in Uzbek at the Northern Alliance soldiers under their tutelage.
Dostum flew north to Uzbekistan while the fighting raged, but rushed back when the coast was clear. He invited the international media into the Qala-I-Jangi, and sat on a high-backed chair as he surveyed the destruction of his HQ, strewn with Taliban body parts, and claimed victory.
It had been obvious when the invasion began on October 7 that the Taliban’s autarkic regime would soon crumble into the dust. Hope had been evident in the wave of an elderly Afghan man who stood on the bank of the Amu Daria watching the barge that brought me, and a crowd of other foreign reporters, down the river into Afghanistan from the horrible Uzbek border town of Termez.
It was like stepping through a tear in the fabric of time, back to the 13th century – a sensation not dispelled by the dignified gent in a tall, grey Astrakhan hat who stood at the door of my guesthouse and tried to force me into a burkha each time I left. He also brought breakfast of bread, apricot jam and an enormous pot of tea to my room at 6 o’clock each morning.
Hope was alive in the heart of the mother of five I interviewed a couple of days after sitting at Dostum’s knee as he extolled the virtues of the new, free Afghan state. She had been a university lecturer before the Taliban’s misogynistic time, and then while forced inside her home by the cane-wielding vice police, had taught her four intelligent daughters to tile kitchens and bathrooms, and weave carpets, so they would not starve should the nightmare never end.
In those heady days of early December 2001, as the defeated Taliban made their way across the border to their Pakistani refuges, she had already abandoned the burkha and was looking forward to going back to work and getting her girls back to school. Life was, once more, theirs for the taking. Or so they believed.
Now, after 10 years of mistakes and misrule, the Taliban’s footfall is again heard across the north, and fear encroaches on the hopes of ordinary people to live ordinary lives. The women of Mazar-I-Sharif are once more taking refuge behind the veil, dressing for the return of the illogical hatred they have already known and had thought they were well rid of.
Ten years after eyebrows and ire were raised worldwide at the tactics used to get rid of the murderous brutality of thugs hiding behind religion, smart Afghan people talk of the Taliban’s return as inevitable, and clever commentators seem to delight in the apparent failure of efforts to graft modern democracy onto the ancient Afghan body politic.
Many of those with money and connections are leaving their country, hoping to secure a future abroad for their children as Afghanistan appears on the verge of collapse and the prospect of civil war looms as an encroaching reality. Amid political gridlock, financial collapse, endemic corruption, and never-ending violence, few want to believe that we are witnessing the last desperate gasps of a failed and dying insurgency. What even fewer want to acknowledge is that Afghanistan’s blood- and tear-stained soil is the battleground for a hot war between the United States and Pakistan.
As the light of hope dims, Afghanistan is again one of the saddest places on earth.

Lynne O’Donnell covered the Qala-i-Jangi siege for The Australian, for whom she was China correspondent from 1998-2002. She was Kabul bureau chief for Agence France-Presse 2009-2010. This article was first written for Afghan Scene magazine.