Don Dahler
Author, Journalist
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November 19, 2001

It was a little over a month ago that we shivered on the mountaintops overlooking Taloqan, with a group of Northern Alliance soldiers who were waiting patiently to retake the city that had fallen to the Taliban last year.

So much has happened, and so quickly.

Taloqan means "Lake of Blood," so named for the terrible battle that happened when Ghengis Khan tried to wrest the area from the locals. War always seems to come to these people by way of outsiders.

As I write this I sit on some camera cases in an empty house in the center of town, a house we're renting from the Afghani judge who owns it. A house that was used, we're told, by some high-ranking Taliban commanders until eight days ago. Needless to say, they didn't pay rent.

Gunfire still crackles in the distance every minute or so, but Taloqan belongs to the Alliance once again, as does much of Afghanistan.

The city is a disconcerting combination of military encampment and vibrant, colorful, bustling village. Heavily armed soldiers brush shoulders with townsfolk in the bazaar, and trucks sporting artillery pieces or multiple rocket-launchers share the roads with horse-drawn carriages and donkeys and the ubiquitous Toyota pickups, liberated recently from the al Qaeda.

These four-door pickups are reportedly the vehicle of choice for bin Laden, and as the Northern Alliance took territory in their lightning-quick advance of the past week, more and more of the little trucks, incongruously emblazoned with mottoes like "Road King" or "High Life," fell into the hands of the Alliance.

On the rugged road from Khoja Bachoudin to here we passed through numerous villages that appeared completely devoid of life; not even a stray dog or donkey could be seen. But at one point, the unmistakable trilling of a machine gun was heard, and our interpreter guessed that was Alliance soldiers going house to house, rooting out Taliban soldiers who were hiding.

We've been warned that Taloqan has its share of dangerous sorts who've attempted to blend into the population  former Taliban or its sympathizers who're being systematically tracked down.

"The crackling gunfire we keep hearing," I ask a deputy foreign minister, "is that just celebration, or are there still pockets of resistance here?" He smiles and shrugs. "Not so much resistance," he replies.

During Friday prayers, thousands of soldiers and townsfolk listened to the amplified sermon in a large clearing in the center of town, a Soviet-era helicopter parked in their midst.

The message was mainly about why Ramadan is so important to be observed, but the mullah veered off onto a plea for people to resist taking things into their own hands should they find Talibs or Pakistanis in their midst. "Do not hit them with your Kalashnikov rifle," he said. "Bring them to the authorities."

But he then added darkly, "Even though it is the Pakistanis who've brought us this misery, the Taliban, by meddling in our country's affairs."

In the town you can hear the other sounds of liberation. The snipping of scissors in the barber shop, as one man after another gets his beard trimmed at least, if not taken off entirely. The thwack of volleyball games and soccer matches in the vast field next to the military headquarters. The strains of music on the breeze blending with the mullahs' calls to prayer.

Even outward signs of happiness seem like a guilty pleasure to those who react first to laughter on the streets with concern, then smile to themselves self-consciously. But curiously, we have not seen one woman without her burqa, the blue or white head-to-ankle covering that so resembles a Halloween ghost costume.

"If the Taliban are gone," I ask our interpreter, a doctor from this area, "why do the women remain covered?"

"Because this place is very conservative," he answers. "In some parts of Afghanistan it's still the tradition, regardless of who's in power."

(Two weeks after this dispatch was posted on the ABC-News website, masked Taliban gunmen shot a European journalist to death two houses down from ours.  As our translator, a doctor, took the man to a nearby hospital, he was stopped by more armed and masked men who demanded to know where the other Western journalists were hiding.  He plead ignorance. After that night checkpoints appeared throughout the city for the purpose of catching, and presumably killing, other foreign journalists).

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