Kabul’s main prison was once crowded with thousands of Taliban captured or arrested by the government during the long war in Afghanistan
It was a sign of a sudden and surprising new order in Afghanistan after the militant group invaded the capital almost a month ago and toppled the crumbling US-backed government it had fought for ever since. 20 years.
The Taliban now run Pul-e-Charkhi prison, a sprawling complex on the eastern outskirts of Kabul. After capturing the city, fighters freed all detainees, government guards fled, and now dozens of Taliban fighters are running the facility.
The commander, who declined to give his name, was on a personal visit to the complex with a group of his friends. He told The Associated Press that he was arrested around ten years ago in the eastern province of Kunar and taken to Pul-e-Charkhi, tied up and blindfolded.
“I feel so bad when I remember those days,” he said. He said the prisoners suffered abuse and torture. He was imprisoned for about 14 months before being released. “These days are the darkest days of my life, and now is the happiest time for me to be free and come here fearlessly.”
Many Afghans as well as governments around the world have been alarmed by the Taliban’s rapid takeover, fearing the movement would impose a similar and harsh rule as they did during their first reign in the 1990s. But for Taliban fighters, it’s time to savor victory after years of fierce fighting – and see a city few have entered since the war began.
For some of the Taliban guards accompanying the PA, it was the first time they had entered the abandoned cell blocks. They looked curiously through the cells, still littered with items left by the last detainees – fabrics hung by walls and windows, small rugs, water bottles.
One fighter traded in his sandals for a better pair he found in a cell. Then he found even a better pair and traded again. Others played with the makeshift weight bars of former prisoners.
Pul-e-Charkhi has had a long and disturbing history of violence, mass executions and torture. Mass graves and torture cells have been found, dating back to Soviet-backed governments of the late 1970s and 1980s. Under US-backed government, it was best known for its poor conditions and overcrowding – its 11 cell blocks were built to house 5,000 inmates, but were often filled with more than 10,000, including Taliban and criminals.
Taliban prisoners often complained of abuse and beatings, and there were regular riots. Yet they kept their organization behind bars, winning concessions like access to cell phones and more time away from their cells.
Some of the Taliban who now guard the site were former detainees. Government guards have fled and do not dare to return, fearing reprisals. Although the facility remains largely empty, one section is holding around 60 people jailed in recent weeks, who guards said were mostly accused felons and drug addicts.