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Taliban on the run

The widowed mother of four wants to shed the long flowing burqa that covers her from head to toe. The vendor wants to go to the barber shop to trim his bushy beard. And the taxi driver delights in a cassette of traditional Afghan music playing at full blast.

Afghanistan's capital awakened cautiously Tuesday to a new life without the oppressive rule of the Taliban, whose strict interpretation of Islam banned music, kept girls from school, prohibited women from working, shut theaters and forced all men to grow beards. Many here said seeing the Taliban depart _ hastily in the night, belongings piled high on trucks _ was like having a heavy veil lifted after five years of darkness.

"We just died in this country," said Sayed Ali, 21. "Nothing is left. We just pray to God to eliminate those Taliban as soon as possible. Everybody has gotten tired of this life, this constant changing of regime. If you look at my face, I look 35 or 40. Since the Taliban took over, we haven't understood the pleasure of life."

"I feel like I've just been born: It's my second life!" cried Ahmed Farid, 27, a shopkeeper. "On the first day the Taliban took over, we were happy because we thought there would be security. Then we realized that these were not Afghans; they were Arabs and Pakistanis and others."

Farid recalled how in the early days of Taliban rule, he trimmed his beard to attend a wedding party, an offense that ran afoul of the Taliban's religious police and landed him seven days in jail. Now he said he looks forward to going to the barber shop, "for trimming, trimming."

"They were controlling every part of our life," said Hassibullah, 19, a student who like many Afghans uses one name. "We weren't allowed to play football. We weren't allowed to go to sports clubs. We weren't allowed to feel like other human beings."

For women, especially, Taliban rule was exceptionally harsh. Women were forced into the traditional burqas, they were prohibited from working or attending school, and they could not go outside their homes without the company of a male relative. Now, women said, they are hoping their rights will be restored.

"I'm happy, because I believe now the doors of the schools will be open for girls," said Nabillah Hasimi, 32, a teacher. She said she continued teaching children secretly, risking imprisonment by going from house to house to meet with about 15 girls. Now, she said, "I'm waiting for normal life, for security to return."

Hasimi spoke from behind the face netting of her blue burqa. She never wore one before the Taliban took over, and she said she will decide whether to shed it once she is sure the old regime is gone for good. "Faith is in the heart, not in the burqa," she said.

Another woman, Torpaki, 28, recalled how she was forced to leave her job in a government ministry, even though she was a widow with four children to feed. "First we were told not to leave our homes. If we did, we would be lashed by the Taliban. On the street, in public.

"We were not used to the burqa, so we were always tripping," she said.

"I feel there were no human rights in Afghanistan," Torpaki said. "Women were not allowed to work or to be educated properly. We were not allowed to leave our house _ that means we were in jail." After awakening to find the Taliban gone and the capital in the hands of the opposition Northern Alliance, she said, "now there are some rays of hope that there will be women's rights in this country."

While Kabul was rejoicing in its liberation, there was for many a sense of wariness about the Northern Alliance and its intentions. Many here remember the last time the same diverse group seized power in 1992, and how it led to a tumultuous period of factional infighting, instability and violence in the capital. It is an experience many here are anxious to avoid repeating.

"For the time being, I'm happy, but I'm afraid of 1992," said Abdul Sabor, a shopkeeper. "I still have that picture in my mind. In '92, we were happy. The mujahedeen were good people. But they started looting and raping and having factions fighting with each other."

"Send a message all over the world: Afghanistan and especially Kabul needs an international peacekeeping force," said Temor Shah, 35, who works in the civil aviation department of the government. "Look," he said, pointing to a truckload of boisterous soldiers driving by in the back of a truck, their rifles thrust in the air. "We have all these different armed people all over the city."

For the most part, the Northern Alliance's entry was more orderly Tuesday than nine years ago when the same factions attained power after defeating the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime. Soldiers took up positions around government buildings, tanks moved into position at the presidential palace, and checkpoints were thrown up at intersections, where troops in camouflage uniforms searched cars.

A leaflet was distributed in the central marketplace, signed by a new "Kabul Security Commission," telling citizens that the Northern Alliance "with the grace of God has the honor to conquer Kabul city from the Taliban and the foreign invaders."

"The Northern Alliance is in Kabul to help you, to provide security to you," the leaflet reads. "There is no discrimination from the Northern Alliance in terms of language, color, tribe, nationality or other reasons."

And perhaps to allay concerns that Kabul's new rulers may seek reprisal against those who cooperated with the Taliban, the leaflet says, "Everybody is forgiven, Taliban or anyone else, as long as he doesn't resist the mujahedeen."

Crowds gathered at several places. Usually, they were looking at the mangled bodies of Pakistani and Arab fighters that were still lying uncovered in the late afternoon. At the Shar-e Naw park, seven bodies were strewn about on the grass and in ditches; bystanders said they were Pakistani fighters who failed to get word of the Taliban retreat from Kabul and were left Tuesday morning to face the hostile crowd.

However, a festive mood lingered. Buses with passengers piled on the rooftop honked their horns and the passengers waved. As one truckload of soldiers passed, bystanders erupted into a chant of "Death to the Taliban! Long live the Northern Alliance!"

Merajuddin, a 30-year-old taxi driver, set the volume on his car cassette to its highest, playing his favorite Afghan songs with the windows rolled down. He had kept the cassette hidden at home for five years, listening to it only at night, and with the volume down low, since the Taliban had banned music. In his taxi, the only cassettes he had listened to were the speeches of Islamic clerics.