Donkey case underlines Taliban fervour

By MARK MACKINNON
Tuesday, January 29, 2002  Print Edition, Page A10

KANDAHAR -- Few people understand the depths of the Taliban's extremism as well as Ayrat Vahitov. That's because he was there the day the donkey got booked.

Mr. Vahitov, a Tartar dissident, was fleeing authorities in Russia when he was captured by the Taliban more than two years ago as he tried to cross Afghanistan to Iran. The Taliban -- suspicious of all things Russian in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country -- believed him to be a spy, and threw him in jail.

He was still in the Kandahar jail early last month when the jail got a new inmate: a donkey, arrested by the Islamic hard-liners for violating their strict laws.

Apparently, being an ass was no excuse for committing a crime. Mr. Vahitov said the donkey was convicted of being an "accessory to theft," guilty of being a thief's getaway vehicle. The animal was sentenced to two weeks behind bars, along with its owner.

For a week, the donkey served hard time with Mr. Vahitov and the rest of the 250 prisoners. Then, halfway through the donkey's sentence, the U.S. bombing of the city intensified in the drive to oust the Taliban.

The sound of the bombs outside "was like music, disco music" to the prisoners, Mr. Vahitov remembers, because they believed it meant freedom was on the way.

The Taliban guards were less pleased. Frustrated and angry, they began to beat inmates. Even more shaken was the donkey. Amid the chaos -- the Taliban guards flailing at prisoners while explosions nearby shook the building's foundations -- the animal began to buck and bray. The prisoners, followed by their normally serious captors, began to laugh at the sight.

"It was so stupid," Mr. Vahitov recalled, shaking his head. The next day, the donkey's sentence was commuted to time served and it was released (the fate of its owner is unknown).

Not all Mr. Vahitov's stories are as humorous. In fact, that's the only funny one he remembers.

During the 2 years he spent in Kandahar prison -- where he remains, officially free under a general amnesty given by Afghanistan's new government to prisoners of the Taliban, but afraid to return home -- Mr. Vahitov saw many horrors.

He keeps in his pocket a drawing he made of himself at the low point of his time in jail. In it, he is depicted as hanging from the ceiling, chains around his wrists and ankles. In one corner of the picture is what he calls an Arab Taliban guard, in the other is a drawing of another inmate, bleeding from the head.

He doesn't know how long he hung there, but believes the other man in the picture, a Tajik friend of his, is dead. As a result of being suspended from the ceiling, Mr. Vahitov has no feeling in his hands, something he demonstrated by poking himself in the palm with a pocketknife.

"I cannot feel the pain. My nervous system is gone," he said. "Often I was worried I was going to die. I lost a lot of blood."

Despite the bad memories, Mr. Vahitov remains in the prison because he doesn't know where else to go. He has no passport and says he wouldn't go back to Russia even if he could.

He's just one of five men in a bizarre state of limbo at the Kandahar jail. Four other foreigners are stranded there -- one Briton, two Saudis and a Syrian. All are free to leave, but none have passports and all say they need consular help. However, while a few countries have managed to establish embassies in Kabul since the Taliban fell, most are without diplomats here who could help.

Another potential problem is that some of the men's stories of how they ended up in the prison seem to defy credibility.

The British national, Jamal Uddin, said he was travelling in Pakistan in the back of a pickup truck in late September and was still in the back when the truck was stolen and brought to Afghanistan, where it was stopped by the Taliban. He was charged as a spy and is now receiving consular help from the British embassy in Kabul.

Abdul Hakim Bukhari, one of the Saudi nationals, admits he was carrying several thousand U.S. dollars when he was picked up travelling in an opium-rich area of southern Afghanistan. This was at a time when the Taliban was cracking down on the opium trade.

He says he was carrying the money to buy carpets and is hopeful he will get home. "I just want to be taken to my embassy, then I will be free," he said. "There will be no problem. I am a good citizen."

The other two inmates would not talk to reporters, but all five of the foreign prisoners were reportedly questioned over the weekend by U.S. officials.

The donkey, like former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, has vanished.