There were once thousands of Taliban in Kabul’s main prison who were captured and arrested by the government. As a Taliban commander walked through its empty halls and cell blocks on Monday, he showed his friends where he had once been imprisoned. It was a sign of what had become a sudden and startling new order in Afghanistan after the militant group swept into the capital nearly a month ago and unseated the crumbling, US-backed government it had fought for 20 years.
Pul-e-Charkhi Prison is a sprawling complex on Kabul’s eastern outskirts run by the Taliban. Taliban fighters captured the city, freed all the inmates, and fled, leaving dozens of Taliban fighters running the facility. The commander, who declined to give his name, was visiting with a group of friends. It was around a decade ago when he was arrested in eastern Kunar province and brought bound and blindfolded to Pul-e-Charkhi. ‘I feel so terrible when I think about those days,’ he said. According to him, prisoners suffer abuse and torture. Before he was released, he was imprisoned for about 14 months. ‘Those were the darkest days of my life, and today I am happy that I am free and can come here without fear’, he said.
The Taliban’s quick seizure of power has alarmed Afghans and governments around the world, as they fear the movement will impose a similar, harsh rule as to when they ruled the country in the 1990s. However, for the Taliban fighters, the moment is about celebrating a victory after years of difficult fighting and taking in a city that only a few have been able to see since the war began. Some of the Taliban guards accompanying the AP were entering abandoned cell blocks for the first time. The inmates looked curiously through the cells, still crammed with things the last inmates left behind – fabric hanging from the walls, small rugs, water bottles.
In a cell, a fighter traded his sandals for a pair of better ones he found. He then found a better pair of shoes and exchanged them again. Some of the former prisoners played with the makeshift weight bars. The history of Pul-e-Charkhi is filled with violence, mass executions, and torture. From the Soviet-backed governments of the late 1970s and 1980s, mass graves and torture cells have been discovered. Under the US-backed government, it was infamous for poor conditions and overcrowding; the 11 cell blocks were designed to house 5,000 inmates but were usually crammed with more than 10,000, including Taliban prisoners and criminals.
Prisoners of the Taliban complained of abuse and beatings, and there were regular riots. Yet, they maintained their organization behind bars, winning concessions like access to cell phones and longer time outside their cells. Former inmates now guarding the site are some of the Taliban. As a result, the government guards fled and are afraid to return, fearing reprisals. The facility is mostly empty, but one section holds 60 people imprisoned in the past few weeks. The guards said the majority were alleged criminals and drug addicts.