I awoke to sunshine, the first in more than a week here, and walked to work as usual—three blocks over unpaved city streets, past music stores blasting Indian and Iranian songs and small timber refineries that smell of burning wood and sawdust. Days of rain had turned the deeply rutted streets to muck, but today they were hard and dry. Boys and men in the street and the shops shouted, "Hello!" and "How are you?" I couldn't answer—even looking at them directly would attract too much attention—but their jubilance was catching, and by the time I reached my office I was smiling.
We spent the morning chasing rumors. We heard that Gen. Atta, one of the two main warlords in northern Afghanistan, had been attacked; some said that his rival, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, had also been assaulted. Reporters wandered in and out of the office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, where I'm training Afghan journalists, murmuring about assassination attempts and pitched battles, civil war and coups. News agencies phoned from Kabul looking for information. We put in calls to Atta, but it all came to nothing. Over the weekend, there was fighting in Herat, a Western Afghan city that has enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace since the fall of the Taliban. Herat's governor, Ismael Khan, a hero of the anti-Soviet resistance and a U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban, has turned the city into something of a police state. On Saturday, someone reportedly tried to assassinate him. In the fighting that followed, Khan's son Mirwais Saddiq, who was also Afghanistan's civil aviation minister, was killed along with dozens of others. President Hamid Karzai sent a high-level delegation to restore order, but the eruption of conflict in what has been the most peaceful part of the country has set everyone on edge.
At lunchtime, Hasina, our only female staff reporter in Mazar, arrived dejected after a series of fruitless interviews. She's been working on a story about child soldiers who are being decommissioned as part of Afghanistan's U.N.-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program but has had a hard time meeting any. UNICEF officials told her that the only way to meet a real child soldier is to drive five hours to Konduz, another northern city, where 150 young fighters have been relieved of their weapons. But Hasina and I know this isn't true: We have seen boys or very young men with guns right here in Mazar. Noori, our faithful and efficient office manager, suggested that we go looking for some in Qala-i-Jangi, a gigantic 19th-century mud fort outside Mazar that is controlled by the Junbish-e-Milli faction led by the Uzbek warlord Dostum. But when I asked Hasina to come to the fort with me, I saw something like fear in her face. Hasina is 27, unmarried, strong, ambitious, and full of life. She took my hand and said, "You know I am brave, but my parents will not let me go to such a place." Noori, Naseer, a longtime IWPR translator, and Qais, one of our staff reporters, agreed. As a local Afghan woman, if Hasina visited the fort, they said, she would be followed by armed thugs and kidnapped or worse. So Noori and I set off for Qala-i-Jangi alone.
In late 2001, as the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan were drawing to a close, hundreds of Taliban were imprisoned by Dostum and the Americans in Qala-i-Jangi. The first American to die in the war, a CIA agent named Johnny "Mike" Spann, was killed here during a prison uprising; a carved marble monument inside the fort is dedicated to his memory. John Walker Lindh, the American Talib, was also found and interrogated here. Hundreds of Taliban prisoners were killed while fighting in the fort, and these days the guards proudly point out the gruesome underground shaft, still littered with ammunition and scraps of cloth, where Lindh and dozens of other Taliban prisoners were holed up, starving, for more than a week before their captors flushed them out with ice-cold water.
I'm not actually supposed to be doing the reporting for our trainee journalists; I'm only supposed to guide them. I didn't think we'd find any child soldiers on our first try anyway. But at the gates of the fort, a short, stocky young man with a thin line of fuzz above his upper lip greeted us. His name, he told us, is Mohibullah. Sure enough, he turned out to be only 18 and said he had been working as an armed guard and driver with the Junbish-e-Milli faction for a year. He introduced us to another 18-year-old who said he had been a soldier since he was 16 but had never actually fought. We walked the ramparts and admired the view. Noori whispered that the boys are often sexually abused by their commanders. In Konduz, UNICEF has been testing the decommissioned child soldiers for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and found that some are ill.
Mohibullah wore a blue T-shirt and sandals and smoked a cigarette. He said he had gone to school up to eighth grade but had learned nothing and now was happy to be "serving the people." "We will fight and if we are killed, no problem," Mohibullah said. "If your time is over, even if you don't fight you'll be dead. We're not afraid to die."