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Afghan capital optimistic 6 months later

Professional Afghan women attend a conference this month in Kabul that urged expanded roles for women in the post-Taliban Afghanistan.  

By Rose Arce

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A brilliant sunshine doused Kabul on Monday morning just like the one that greeted New York on September 11 six harrowing months ago.

The Afghan capital was quiet despite aggressive fighting going on in the mountains about 100 miles south. The muddy ruts that serve as streets are crowded by people atop bicycles and wooden carts and aging cars. Sheep zigzag through the traffic on their way to be slaughtered.

They refer to the attack here simply as "September" because Afghans were banned from watching television by the Taliban and many Afghans found out about the attacks in the days that followed. Even now, few Afghans seem to have seen the startling images of the event in the United States that so upended their lives as well.

I've shown video of that day to several people, and they always marvel at the size of the World Trade Center's twin buildings and the brightness of the flames. They are particularly stunned at the images of people leaping to their death and, even after 23 years of experiencing their own wars, are astounded at the enormity of the attack.

They struggle to choose the right words to express what September has meant. They say they are sad for the people who died that day and astonished by how quickly Afghanistan was engulfed by war after the attack and how furiously the war still rages. But to them, "September" was the beginning of a time of great promise.

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"Everyone thinks it was so terrible, but it also meant that we are free," one little girl remarked.

With the fall of the Taliban, Afghans' government and culture and way of life and level of freedom have been altered. Women under the Taliban were forbidden from school or work and could only venture out cloaked in burqas. Defiance brought a beating with a heavy cable wire.

"September affected not only my life but that of all of the women of Afghanistan," said Suhaila Sashina, from beneath her bright, blue burqa. "The women are free now; they can go back to work, and they are feeling very free, but you might ask why I still have my burqa on, and it's because I'm afraid there still might be al Qaeda or Taliban out there."

Six months after September 11, just a few are starting to hold jobs or go to school, and some occasionally venture out with a scarf or veil instead of a burqa.

For men, the changes have also been dramatic. The country's leadership has completely changed, and commerce and travel and opportunity have returned. There are fewer beards and turbans, and loud music plays from stalls selling a collection of previously forbidden goods like television sets or pictures of pretty Indian movie stars.

"September really changed the life of the people in Afghanistan because al Qaeda and all the people who supported their terrorism have finally left Afghanistan, and we are finally free and living in peace," said shopkeeper Jawid Ahmad, 27.

An army and police force are being trained; ministries are starting to deliver services. The nongovernmental organizations that all but replaced Afghanistan's health and welfare system are able to distribute food and aid and medical attention once again.

"The most remarkable thing in six months," said Jabar Amini, a translator for CNN, "is that you are sitting here asking me questions. Six months ago a Westerner couldn't have even come here, a woman couldn't go out without a burqa, and in any case you would need the permission of officials and be accompanied by a guard and two others."

International peacekeepers patrol the streets today with bullhorns announcing that they are ensuring the safety of streets. There is war and crime, and occasionally chaos, but there is also hope like there has not been, said some Afghans, in 23 years.

In spite of the Taliban's absence, many women continue to wear burqas in public.  

"September changed the lives of Afghans because al Qaeda and the terrorists were eliminated, and now we can walk the streets at night and do our business without having problems," said Mohammed Rafiz Safar. "We don't fear getting in trouble for something as simple as cutting our hair."

On September 11, a New York summer was giving way to the crisp cold air and grayish skies of a New York fall. Today in Kabul, Bahar or spring is just days away, and with it Nowrose, a new year, when families celebrate by drinking the juice of dried fruits and by filling up on hearty green foods to symbolize joy.

During an interview Sunday, interim leader Hamid Karzai said that he was filled with sadness for the people of New York.

"Six months have passed since that horrible, horrible event of terrorism in the twin towers and Washington," Karzai said. "I hope people all over the world recognize that these bad people, these criminals who committed crimes like that will be shown to the courts, and the people will have justice, and that we all shall work together to prevent these bad people from hurting us again."

But Karzai's face brightened when he began to talk about Nowrose and how this year might bring the end of terrorism.

And, on this bright day in Kabul, six months after a dark cloud of debris filled the skies of New York, many in the Afghan city seem to agree.




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