KABUL, Afghanistan Teen-age boys rubbed their freshly shaven faces, old men danced in the street, women swayed to music blaring from transistor radios Taliban forces were on the run yesterday and Kabul residents broke the Islamic regime’s dictates in celebration.
Despite early undertakings to hold their positions outside Kabul, Afghanistan’s rebel Northern Alliance forces rolled into the capital within hours of the Taliban withdrawal. Heavily armed alliance troops roamed the streets, hunting Taliban stragglers and their Arab allies from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda movement.
“It is by God’s grace that you got rid of [the Taliban],” 9-year-old Hashmat Ullah said. “They used to beat us.”
Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister, said that 3,000 security forces had entered Kabul but that the bulk of the forces would remain outside the city. He defended the Northern Alliance advance into the capital after the Taliban retreat.
“There were reports of robbing, of armed groups already in Kabul they took advantage of the situation,” he said. “We had no option but to move into the city. When we established control, the looting ended.”
Washington had wanted the Northern Alliance to hold its assault until after a provisional post-Taliban government took shape. Mr. Abdullah said that an alliance security commission was maintaining order in the city and encouraged displaced people to return.
As the sun rose yesterday morning, Taliban forces were beating a hasty retreat ahead of the Northern Alliance. Many fled with the spoils of their occupation: plundered cash and looted goods.
But in the chaotic evacuation from the city, some Taliban units were left behind. Western journalists witnessed a skirmish between Arab and Pakistani guerrillas and about 20 Northern Alliance fighters in the city center. Several of the men sought refuge in an adobe-walled storage building but were flushed out.
At least one of the Taliban fighters was killed and three more were captured. Several bullet-strewn corpses of Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani forces littered roadside gutters.
Eight foreign aid workers facing Taliban charges of preaching Christianity were reportedly transferred to Kandahar. Their squalid prison cell in Kabul, now abandoned, still contained their few possessions.
There were a few isolated scenes of violence but the general mood was one of jubilation. Residents shouted out congratulations, honked car horns and rang bells on their bicycles. With much teasing and laughter, men shaved off Taliban-mandated beards.
The city was bustling with shoppers throughout the day. Bananas, tomatoes, grapes, turnips and melons were all available in the market. Western journalists were greeted as part of the conquering army and swept up in the light-hearted, festive atmosphere.
Young girls threw flowers in front of Northern Alliance vehicles as they circled through the town. Some units continued to pursue Taliban forces fleeing the city. There were reports of fighting along Kabul’s northwest approaches where half-frozen corpses of Taliban fighters lay where they had been slain.
In the small northeast corner of the country that, until four days ago, was the Northern Alliance’s sole domain, a crowd of men swelled around a transistor radio and listened to the stunning news of Taliban forces being routed.
A refugee who gave only his first name, Mohibullah, glanced at the faces around him, his eyes widening. “All this happened today?” he asked.
“For a month the [Northern Alliance] doesn’t capture anything, and now in a week it’s capturing all of Afghanistan,” Mohibullah said. “This is good news. We’re going home.”
Some 3,000 families had been living in the Gham Ghashlaga refugee camp on pounded dirt near the town of Khawja Bahuaddin.
As Western radio stations broadcast news of the capture of another Taliban-held city or district, refugees at the Gham Ghashlaga camp packed their belongings. Women folded blankets and stripped off tarpaulins that had served as roofs. The homes they had lived in for months or even years soon became shells of low mud walls, sticks or woven grass.
“There were nine of us here,” one woman said, surrounded by some of her seven children. “At night, there was no room to sleep, so the adults slept outside in the cold. We are very happy to be going home.”
Beds of straw were all that was left of departed households. Camels loped through the emptying camp. Open-bed trucks lumbered down rutted roads carrying refugees back to their villages with the belongings they took when they fled.
Mohibullah, a father of five in a grimy business jacket over khaki tunic, escaped from the village of Khoja Ghaar about a year ago after the Taliban took it and conscripted the men, he said.
“My brother was a soldier for the [Northern Alliance], so I was fighting my brother,” he said.
Mohibullah sold the donkeys he had fled with to buy wheat, oil and firewood for his family. Yesterday, like many others, he was ready to go, but complained there were too few trucks to take everyone home.
With U.S. bombardments targeting Taliban positions across Afghanistan over the past weeks, some returning refugees could find their homes devastated by the raids or ruined in the Taliban-opposition fighting. But the grim prospect did not seem to deter them.
Rasoull, a Kunduz refugee, was sitting tight, in three huts of mud and grass housing his family and that of his two brothers. His city, as of yesterday evening, was the only northern one still in Taliban control.
“We are listening to the radio,” he said. “When they capture Kunduz, we will go.”