For Three Years, He Was Imprisoned by the Taliban, But Freedom Hasn't Been Much Better




On a summer morning just over two years ago, Abdul Qayim watched as 12 fellow inmates were picked out from a group that had been gathered into the yard of the Taliban prison in Kandahar. Two foreign fighters, an Arab and a Punjabi, had introduced themselves and said that they had just been released from an alliance prison liberated by the Taliban. Now they wanted revenge.

''They walked along our lines and just pointed people out,'' Qayim remembers. ''We stood there in silence, each hoping to be invisible. They stared at me for a second, then passed. I let out a long breath, but quietly, in case it attracted attention.''

After more than a year in Taliban custody, Qayim was familiar with brutality. He had been a shopkeeper in Kabul, but as a Panjshiri, an ethnic group that dominates the Northern Alliance army, he was suspect. In 1998, he had been picked up, tortured for three weeks and beaten so badly with wire cables that he lost the hearing in his left ear. Soon thereafter he was imprisoned in Kandahar. His wife learned that Qayim had been detained when their eldest son ran home to say he had seen the Taliban taking his father away.

Since the day he was taken into custody, Qayim hasn't spoken with his wife or with his two sons, Muhammed Mustafa, 10, and Abdul Musaver, 7, except from a distance. (He withheld his wife's name for fear of reprisal.) It wasn't until he was moved to a prison in Kabul after 15 months that he was able to even see his wife. Once a week he managed to shout out a conversation to her from a ground-floor window.

This past July, after three years in captivity, he was released. He was half of a one-for-one prisoner exchange across the front lines east of Kabul. Nothing much surprises Qayim anymore. So he professes not to have been shocked when he recognized the prisoner coming the other way across the no-man's land. The single Taliban fighter, who had been simultaneously released by the Northern Alliance, was from Qayim's village. ''We didn't speak,'' says Qayim, ''just nodded as we passed each other. I didn't feel anything for him or myself.''

Liberty has not been kind to Qayim. Unable to return to Kabul for fear of rearrest, he lives in a dirty hotel room in Gulbahar, a town held by the Northern Alliance, some 40 miles north of Kabul. His room, which he shares with up to 20 others, is paid for by a local aid organization, Emergency. Qayim can't afford to bring his family from Kabul to join him. Despite the bombing there, he thinks they are better off remaining in their home than joining him in exile.

''I have nothing here, no home, no money and no belongings,'' he says. ''I pray night and day that the Taliban leave the city so I can be reunited with my wife and sons. Though I am free now, I have not touched them since 1998. All I can do is wait.''


New York Times

October 21, 2001




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