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Inside a Taliban jail, paranoia and ignorance rule

During the 25 days he was imprisoned by Afghanistan's Taliban authorities, Michel Peyrard, a French journalist, watched the makeshift jail where he was held fill with other prisoners.

Some of the new arrivals at the detention center in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, he said, were just beggars in rags or mentally ill. One young man was there because he had shaved his beard.

Others were mere children. But, many, he writes, were men of stature suspected of disloyalty and now in chains.

The Taliban, he writes in this week's issue of Paris Match magazine, have been engaged in a paranoid purge, hauling dozens of local leaders off to Post No. 3, the former headquarters of an aid organization taken over by the Taliban intelligence service and converted into a jail.

"To see men of advanced age, often with a reputation as fine commanders, humiliated by youngsters drunk on their own authority," Peyrard writes, "it was impossible not to recall purges by the Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime."

In a five-page account of his time as a prisoner, Peyrard, 44, offers a sometimes terrifying, sometimes amusing picture of life inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where "ignorance is the rule and suspicion triumphs over analysis."

The intelligence service in Jalalabad, he writes, is run by a "megalomaniac" 24-year-old. When one prisoner escaped, Peyrard writes, the Taliban had the prisoner's three nephews _ ages 10, 13 and 19 _ arrested. The eldest, Peyrard writes, was tortured and subjected to a mock execution in which a bullet hit the wall inches from his head.

Peyrard suggests that while the American bombardment may be having some effect, the paranoia of the Taliban leaders themselves _ and the hatred of ordinary Afghans for the Islamic militants from Arab and other countries who have affiliated themselves with the Taliban cause _ could become important forces undermining the fundamentalist government in Kabul.

Arrested on Oct. 9 after entering Afghanistan in the garb of an Afghan woman, Peyrard, a reporter for Paris Match since 1983, was paraded in a marketplace as a spy. A few people threw stones at him. But most people, he writes, appeared uninterested and he suffered no other abuse. He devotes few words to conditions in the jail, describing it as a modest compound with several rooms and a central courtyard.

Over time Peyrard was able to befriend his jailers and once even managed a five-hour tour of the city by feigning illness so he would be taken to a doctor. Once in the car, he offered to take his guards to lunch if they would show him Jalalabad. " "Sure,' said the guard in charge, hesitating only a second.

The outing ended abruptly, he writes, when they were seen by a group of Islamic militants.

At first, Peyrard writes, the Taliban soldiers seemed to respect private property. But as the U.S.-led bombings continued, the soldiers took what they pleased from aid organizations, sometimes passing out the loot in the courtyard.

One young member of the Taliban decided to teach himself how to drive in a jeep confiscated from an aid organization and promptly drove it into a wall. But no one seemed to notice or care.

Peyrard says that over time prison officials revealed their ambivalence about the Taliban. One young guard complained that, "These mullahs only think of themselves. When the Americans started their bombing, they put their families out of harm's way in Pakistan. But I haven't seen my own wife for two months."

Another told Peyrard that he had been honored at first to join the intelligence service, "But now I'm fed up. I want to listen to music again." He added, "One day, God willing, I will get out of this hell."

At one point, even the director of the detention center, Qari Zever, spoke to Peyrard of his own doubts about the regime. But Zever, who had once been the provincial governor's driver, believed that leaving his job was impossible. "I have no choice," he said. "No one leaves the Taliban intelligence service." To do so apparently guarantees a three-month jail sentence.

But the same guard who wanted to listen to music was indignant when shown a leaflet dropped by an American plane. "Is this really the future you want for your women and children?" the leaflet asked. It showed a photograph of Taliban religious police beating a woman.

"Who are these Americans to

interfere with our customs?" the guard asked.

Peyrard, who speaks some Pashto but was detained with two Pakistani journalists who translated for him, says that the younger guards liked to practice their English with him, repeating: "This is a jail. This is a cell. This is a mouse." When the American planes came over, they would shout: "This is Mr. Bush." When the bombardments slowed they shouted, "This is Mr. Bush droopy."

The number of people in the detention center grew while Peyrard was there, so much so, he says, that they had to move into new accommodations just days before he was released. In some cases, he writes, men were being arrested simply because they belonged to religious or tribal groups that had rallied to the Taliban only toward the end of the Afghan civil war. Because they had been the last to join, they were suspected of being most likely to rebel first.

As Peyrard was leaving the detention center last Saturday, its director, Zever said, "I'll probably be replacing you in this cell tomorrow."