Every day, mourners slip into the Taliban cemetery at the edge of the city, stooping to caress the smooth white stones covering the graves or quietly contemplating the headstones that relate the history of Taliban heros.
One tall slate stone, surrounded by flags fluttering on bamboo poles and carved in Afghan Pashto script, honors Yar Mohammad Akhund, a former anti-Soviet fighter and later a Taliban governor of several Afghan provinces. The tribute recounts the high points of his life, and death:
"He studied religion since childhood.... He struggled against the Russians for many years.... He was imprisoned but freed by the order of God.... He was an expert user of Stinger missiles.... When the pure Taliban movement came he began a new struggle against the enemies of Islam.... He opened 20 religious schools in Herat.... He was killed in the struggle against the ignorants in the [Islamic] year 1377."
In a brand-new cemetery across the street, hundreds of people each day crowd to view the neatly dug graves of 74 Arabs and other foreign fighters who died in the U.S. bombing in October and November. Some of the visitors are sick people seeking blessings from the dead, who are believed to have special powers as martyrs for Islam. Others are angry young men who throw stones at foreigners attempting to visit the site.
"These boys died here alone, in a foreign country. They were our Muslim brothers and we weep for them," said Sher Mohammed, 65, a horse cart driver who was visiting the Arab cemetery Monday. "It is the duty of every Muslim to see they are buried with respect."
While many Afghans are relieved at the demise of the radical Islamic Taliban forces that controlled most of the country for five years, the people of Kandahar have a strikingly different view. This southern city was the birthplace of the Taliban, which ruled the city beginning in 1994, and its populace shared its ethnic Pashtun roots.
Now that the Taliban rulers have been replaced by an interim government that includes a hodgepodge of unruly ethnic militias from other parts of Afghanistan, many residents of Kandahar are openly mourning the end of the previous era, which they say brought seven years of peace, stability and ethnic respect.
Despite the presence of more than 3,000 U.S. troops here, Kandahar residents from all walks of life said they now live in fear of armed militia members and gunmen roaming the streets. They expressed deep mistrust of the new provincial governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, a controversial figure who held the same post in the early 1990s during a period of arbitrary violence and lawlessness.
Although some Kandahar residents supported the Taliban's radical interpretation of Islamic law and practice, even moderate Muslims here expressed nostalgia for the Taliban's strict control of crime and violence, and many said they would willingly sacrifice personal freedom for safety.
"During the Taliban time, you could walk the streets safely day and night. Now we have to sleep with guns for pillows because we can be robbed at any time," said Abdul Haddi, 35, a car dealer. "Now we have the freedom to listen to music, and nobody bothers us about wearing beards, but music does not put food on the table. We prefer extremism to instability."
At a nursing school on the grounds of Mir Weis Hospital, female students and teachers this week expressed grave concern for their safety in the streets. Saying they feared being accosted and molested by gunmen, they begged the school's director for door-to-door bus service so they would not have to walk or wait outdoors.
During the Taliban era, the school received special permission to teach girls after agreeing to follow strict Islamic rules, with no men allowed on the premises, no music or parties and special curtained buses bringing veiled students to class. Now, the girls said, the atmosphere inside the school is more relaxed, but the conditions outside are far more frightening.
"We are so confused and worried. There are gunmen everywhere, and there is no stability," said Khatira, 18, a nursing student. "I hate guns, and I only want to study. I was born in a time of fighting, and I never saw any stable conditions except with the Taliban. In the time of extremism, I could study safely. Now I can't."
A number of Kandahar residents said they wished the U.S. military forces now stationed in the area would do more to help provide law and order to their communities, rather than focusing their efforts on hunting down Arab fighters, suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and former heads of the Taliban.
To a certain extent, Taliban sympathies here also extend to Arabs who lived here and fought alongside the Taliban against its armed domestic opponents in northern Afghanistan, and who later were killed or wounded in the U.S. bombing campaign.
At Mir Weis Hospital, where a half-dozen injured and armed Arab fighters have been barricaded inside a prison ward for weeks, even the soldiers guarding the grounds this week said they strongly disagreed with the government's decision to suspend all food supplies to the detainees after they refused to surrender.
"It is a shameful violence to stop their food and kill them slowly. Every Muslim in the world has sorrow for these men," said Akhtar Mohammed, 40, a hospital guard. "We want a moderate Islamic government, but not one that will sell the Koran for dollars." The Arab prisoners, he added, "are dying but they are happy, because they will go to paradise."
The Taliban militia was made up largely of ethnic Pashtuns from this region, and many Kandahar families lost their sons to the fighting. Others are trying to find male relatives who they fear were killed or imprisoned in the U.S. assault. Hundreds have sought help from the local office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has access to prisoners detained by the interim government and by the U.S. military.
Not all these relatives supported the Taliban, and some bitterly blame the Islamic militia for their loss. Only a minority of Taliban fighters were volunteers; most were conscripted and sent into battle.
"What did the Taliban ever give me except a son who may be dead or in prison?" asked Malika, 35, a weeping woman whose 19-year-old son was seized in a Kandahar bazaar eight months ago and sent off to fight. He was reportedly seen in Kunduz province shortly before Taliban forces were driven from the region in November, but she has not heard from him and now fears the worst.
In the cemeteries of Kandahar, however, devotion to the Taliban cause this week was very much alive, with some mourners vowing that if the new government fails to establish peace and security, the now-invisible and apparently vanquished Taliban movement could easily re-emerge to fill the void.
"People are afraid to say the truth now, but real Muslims are not happy with this new revolution," said Mohammed Halim, 19, a cleric who was visiting the grave of Mohammed Rabbani, a widely respected Taliban commander and official who died of cancer last year.
"Not all the Taliban were criminals and terrorists; they were part of the people, and there are thousands of them everywhere," he said. "If this government does not bring stability, they can come again and capture Kandahar within days."