November 12, 2001
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Exiled residents of Mazar-e-Sharif overjoyed

Basharat Peer in New Delhi.

Exiled residents who had seen the glory of Mazar-e-Sharif, the strategic northern Afghan city, before the Taleban captured it in August 1998, are happy that Northern Alliance troops have ousted the militia from the city.

"My city is free again. I was so relieved when I got the news. I was happy for the people of Mazar-e-Sharif," says Akhlaaq Ahmadi, who has been living in India for the last four years.

Ahmadi, who belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, gets nostalgic about the times that he spent in the city, which lies close to the Uzbekistan border.

In the pre-Taleban days, Mazar-e-Sharif was one of the most liberal cities of Afghanistan. It had colleges and universities, radio and television stations. There were two cinema halls, discotheques and swimming pools.

"It was a normal life. I studied in Balakh University. We had female teachers. There was a medical college where we had female doctors. There were no restrictions on women. You could do your own thing," Ahmadi says.

Even after the fall of the communist government headed by Najibullah, Mazar-e-Sharif witnessed peace under the rule of General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

"Life did not change even after then fall of the communist government. We had freedom even under the rule of General Dostum," he says.

Ali Hussain, another Mazar-e-Sharif native who now studies in Delhi University, fondly remembers his childhood.

"The last film I watched there was Dilip Kumar starrer Karma," he says.

But when the Taleban captured the city in 1998, everything changed for its residents.

The militia went on a rampage, killing and imprisoning hundreds of their opponents. The schools were closed. Women were forced to stay indoors. Entertainment was banned and men were forced to grow beard.

To a great extent, Mazar-e-Sharif owes its name and importance to a shrine in the heart of the city, believed by many to be the grave of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed.

"They even stopped us from entering the shrine, as their interpretation of Islam does not believe in shrines. They wanted us adopt the Taleban brand of Islam. The annual festival of 'Red Rose', traditionally celebrated at the shrine, was also banned," Hussain says.

The city's residents -- ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and a minority of Pashtoons -- resented the restrictions imposed by the Taleban regime.

The exiled residents of the city claim that the different ethnic groups of Mazar-e-Sharif lived in harmony.

"It is true that the different ethnicities in Afghanistan have been at loggerheads with each other. But we lived comfortably in Mazar-e-Sharif. Some of my best friends were Pashtoons and Tajiks," says Akhlaq Ahmadi.

Although happy that their city is free from the clutches of Taleban, they feel that it will be a long time before they can return home.

"Until there is a proper government in Kabul and the task of social reconstruction is carried out, I do not see a point in returning," Hussain says.

Mazar-e-Sharif captured, says Dostum
Taleban admit fall of Mazar-e-Sharif
'Our forces are inside Mazar. They are controlling the streets'

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