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Late one afternoon this past August, Shakira heard banging on her front gate. Outside were two men in bandoliers and black turbans, carrying rifles. They were members of the Taliban, who were waging an offensive to wrest the countryside back from the Afghan National Army. The family crossed an old footbridge spanning a canal, then snaked their way through reeds and irregular plots of beans and onions, past dark and vacant houses.
Their neighbors had been warned, too, and, except for wandering chickens and orphaned cattle, the village was empty. She started to feel the rattle of distant thuds, and saw people streaming from riverside villages: men Boys changing room at mature adult wivess low beneath bundles stuffed with all that they could not bear to leave behind, women walking as quickly as their burqas allowed.
The pounding of artillery filled the air, announcing the start of a Taliban assault on an Afghan Army outpost. Shakira balanced her youngest child, a two-year-old daughter, on her hip as the sky flashed and thundered. The corrugated-iron storefronts had largely been destroyed during the war. Shakira found a one-room shop with an intact roof, and her family settled in for the night. As she held the figures in the light of a match, the earth shook. Around dawn, Shakira stepped outside, and saw that a few dozen families had taken shelter in the abandoned market.
Now stray pillars jutted upward, and the air smelled of decaying animal remains and burning plastic. In the distance, the earth suddenly exploded in fountains of dirt. Helicopters from the Afghan Army buzzed overhead, and the families hid behind the shops, considering their next move.
There was fighting along the stone ramparts to the north and the riverbank to the west. To the east was red-sand desert as far as Shakira could see. The only option was to head south, toward the leafy city of Lashkar Gah, which remained under the control of the Afghan government. The journey would entail cutting through a barren plain exposed to abandoned U. A few families started off. It was clear that the Taliban would soon reach Kabul, and that the twenty years, and the trillions of dollars, devoted to defeating them had come to nothing.
The gunfire sounded closer. Shakira spotted Taliban vehicles racing toward the bazaar—and she decided to stay put. She was weary to the bone, her nerves frayed. She would face whatever came next, accept it like a judgment. The longest war in American history ended on August 15th, when the Taliban captured Kabul without firing a shot.
Bearded, scraggly men with black turbans took control of the Presidential palace, and around the capital the austere white flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan went up. Panic ensued. For Americans, the very real possibility that the gains of the past two decades might be erased appeared to pose a dreadful choice: recommit to seemingly endless war, or abandon Afghan women.
This summer, I travelled to rural Afghanistan to meet women who were already living under the Taliban, to listen to what they thought about this looming dilemma. More than seventy per cent of Afghans do not live in cities, and in the past decade the insurgent group had swallowed large swaths of the countryside.
Unlike in relatively liberal Kabul, visiting women in these hinterlands is not easy: even without Taliban rule, women traditionally do not speak to unrelated men. Public and private worlds are sharply divided, and when a woman leaves her home she maintains a cocoon of seclusion through the burqa, which predates the Taliban by centuries. Girls essentially disappear into their homes at puberty, emerging only as grandmothers, if ever.
It was through grandmothers—finding each by referral, and speaking to many without seeing their faces—that I was able to meet dozens of women, of all ages. Many were living in desert tents or hollowed-out storefronts, like Shakira; when the Taliban came across her family hiding at the market, the fighters advised them and others not to return home until someone could sweep for mines.
I first encountered her in a safe house in Helmand. Shakira has a knack for finding humor in pathos, and in the sheer absurdity of the men in her life: in the nineties, the Taliban had offered to supply electricity to the village, and the local graybeards had initially refused, fearing black magic. When she laughs, she pulls her shawl over her face, leaving only her eyes exposed.
I told her that she shared a name with a world-renowned pop star, and her eyes widened. Shakira, like the other women I met, grew up in the Sangin Valley, a gash of green between sharp mountain outcrops. The valley is watered by the Helmand River and by a canal that Americans built in the nineteen-fifties.
You can walk the width of the dale in an hour, passing dozens of tiny hamlets, creaking footbridges, and mud-brick walls. As a girl, Shakira heard stories from her mother of the old days in her village, Pan Killay, which was home to about eighty families: the children swimming in the canal under the warm sun, the women pounding grain in stone mortars.
In winter, smoke wafted from clay hearths; in spring, rolling fields were blanketed with poppies. Tribal elders and landlords refused. The next day, the government arrested tribal elders and landlords on the suspicion that they were bankrolling the mujahideen. These community leaders were never seen again.
Tanks from the Soviet Union crossed the border to shore up the Communist government—and to liberate women.
Soon, Afghanistan was basically split in two. In the cities, the Soviet-backed government banned child marriage and granted women the right to choose their partners. Girls enrolled in schools and universities in record s, and by the early eighties women held parliamentary seats and even the office of Vice-President.
The violence in the countryside continued to spread. Early one morning when Shakira was five, her aunt awakened her in a great hurry. The children were led by the adults of the village to a mountain cave, where they huddled for hours. At night, Shakira watched artillery streak the sky. When the family returned to Pan Killay, the wheat fields were charred, and crisscrossed with the tread marks of Soviet tanks. The cows had been mowed down with machine guns.
Nighttime evacuations became a frequent occurrence and, for Shakira, a source of excitement: the dark corners of the caves, the clamorous groups of children. Occasionally she gathered metal shards so that she could build a doll house. Once, she showed her mother a magazine photograph of a plastic doll that exhibited the female form; her mother snatched it away, calling it inappropriate.
So Shakira learned to make dolls out of cloth and sticks. When she was eleven, she stopped going outside. Her world shrank to the three rooms of her house and the courtyard, where she learned to sew, bake bread in a tandoor, and milk cows. One day, passing jets rattled the house, and she took sanctuary in a closet.
During the afternoons, while her parents napped, she began matching the Pashto words to pictures. Competing mujahideen factions were now trying to carve up the country for themselves. Villages like Pan Killay were lucrative targets: there were farmers to tax, rusted Soviet tanks to salvage, opium to export. Our terror had a name, and it was Amir Dado. He hailed from the upper Sangin Valley, where his tribe, the Alikozais, had held vast feudal plantations for centuries.
The lower valley was the home of the Ishaqzais, the poor tribe to which Shakira belonged. By the early nineties, the Communist government of Afghanistan, now bereft of Soviet support, was crumbling. InLashkar Gah fell to a faction of mujahideen. Shakira had an uncle living there, a Communist with little time for the mosque and a weakness for Pashtun tunes. The gunmen dragged Sana away. Not long afterward, the mujahideen toppled the Boys changing room at mature adult wivess in Kabul, and they brought their countryside mores with them.
In the capital, their leaders—who had received generous amounts of U. Yet the new mujahideen government quickly fell apart, and the country descended into civil war. At night in Pan Killay, Shakira heard gunfire and, sometimes, the shouts of men. Her family gathered in the courtyard and discussed, in low voices, how they might escape. But the ro were studded with checkpoints belonging to different mujahideen groups.Boys changing room at mature adult wivess
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