“It was horrible,” said Ahmad Azizi, 42, as he swept out a market near the plaza Sunday, one week after the grim display was erected by Taliban authorities. “It brought back all the dark days again. I cannot say what is in my heart, but I remember those days, and I hope they are not coming back.”
“It made me happy,” said Daoud Feroz, 24, who was selling phone cards in a booth nearby. “Crime has been terrible here for so long, and someone had to take action to control it. Last month a man pointed a gun at my head and stole my motorbike. Now the criminals are going to be scared.”
On Tuesday, in a second gruesome display intended to deter crime, the corpses of three alleged robbers were hung high from towering excavation shovels in the Obe district of Herat province. Taliban officials said the men were killed after an attempted home theft. Photos in local media showed them hanging from the neck.
The revival of such grisly public deterrents, which the previous Taliban regime used to quash street crime and warlord brigandry in the late 1990s, has elicited both praise and foreboding among the inhabitants of this ancient city of 600,000 near the border with Iran, long known as a center of artistry, learning and trade.
So far, the new government has refrained from carrying out such extreme actions in the capital, Kabul, or other large cities. It is not clear why Herat has been singled out to set an example.
Taliban officials here say they want to send a message of zero tolerance and swift justice to lawbreakers, while also appealing to the more modern values and diverse culture of Herat. To many here, the contradictory message rings hollow but is still a welcome departure from the militants’ stress on punitive religious enforcement in the past.
“In the past 20 years, Afghanistan has changed, and we have changed. The only thing that has not changed is sharia law,” the Taliban’s vice governor of Herat province, Shir Ahmad Muhajir, said in an interview Sunday. “We want women to work and study and be in public, as long as they have [a related male escort]. We want to support art and culture, to have good relations with all groups.”
The first public hoisting of the accused kidnappers, he said, was done strictly to stop crime. “Since then we are facing no such criminal issues.”
Many Herat residents agreed this week that crime, especially organized kidnapping and armed robbery, had become a chronic scourge in the city, where lucrative cross-border trade and manufacturing, as well as entrenched official corruption, have created great wealth. Several said the abduction of children for ransom had become a common phenomenon.
"It had gotten so bad than families did not allow their children to walk to the corner," said Sardar Badawri, a businessman and one of the few Herat provincial council members who did not flee after the Taliban takeover. "This is the reality," he said. "I do not support the Taliban, but I support whatever they can to do stop crime and bring security."
For others, though, especially young and educated women, the greater fear now is of an invisible punishment: the slow inner death that comes with losing the right to self-expression or intellectual growth. Even if the new Taliban rulers do not physically confine women to their homes, many express fear that they will be consigned to idle irrelevance.
“They say we can work, but they only want us in low-level jobs where they need us, like airport search rooms and maternity wards,” said Suniya, one of half a dozen local female activists and academics who met with a reporter privately. They spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, after several attempted protests here last month were met with violence.
The women described a litany of recent humiliations and frustrations. One was harassed at a police stop for driving a car alone; another was barred from traveling abroad to compete in a sports tournament. Two were dismissed from jobs at coed colleges or foreign charities that abruptly shut down. And while not required to fully cover themselves, as under past Taliban rule, several said they resented being told to stop wearing makeup or high-heeled shoes.
“The Taliban are obsessed with controlling us. They are mostly illiterate, so they are afraid of educated women, and they are using sharia law selectively to justify their actions,” said Manija, a former sociology teacher. “They say they have changed, but I don’t believe it. We are half the population, and today the future for all of us is uncertain.”
In a recent report, based largely on interviews with women in Herat, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch described another worrisome repercussion of Taliban rule: the likely reinforcement of traditional male power and abusive practices within Afghan families, after two decades of increasing freedom for women and official protection from abuse under civilian democracy.
But what stood out in interviews here this week was something else: a strong showing of men’s support for their daughters’ and sisters’ desires to advance. In part, this reflects a generational change that has paralleled the country’s modernization. It also reflects the relatively liberal values of Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Muslims, the dominant religious group in Herat with long-standing ties to Shiite Iran. Taliban members are Muslims from an extreme branch of the Sunni Islamic sect, with ideological ties to Saudi Arabia.
One private education center for girls of all ages, founded by a local Shiite community leader, is still holding classes in English, communication technology and robotics. On Tuesday, several 12-year-olds there said they were worried about what would happen to them next year, because the Taliban authorities so far have banned girls from school after sixth grade across the country.
“I still want to be a scientist, and I am trying not to lose hope,” said a 15-year-old named Mosanth, standing behind her desk and speaking with barely suppressed emotion. She has already passed the prescribed Taliban cutoff level, but she is counting on her father’s support.
“He told me to keep fighting,” she said. “If there is no other way, he will take me to Iran to keep studying.”
Near the shuttered Herat University campus, a longtime professor of literature named Abdul Ghani Ghosravi sat slumped on a sofa at home with his grown children Sunday. The carpeted parlor was enveloped in gloom. Ghosravi is no longer able to teach, although the Taliban has said classes will resume in all public universities after arrangements are made to separate men from women.
His oldest daughter, who was studying petrochemical engineering in India, is now stuck at home. So is his son, Sohrab, 25, who worked at an international aid agency.
“I feel frustrated to lose my job, but I feel more sorrow for my female colleagues,” Sohrab said. “This is the 21st century, and they deserve the same chance I had. But the door is shutting, and I see no light for them now.”
This week, the shimmering marble plazas of Herat’s historic Grand Mosque were emptier than usual. In the colorful outdoor markets nearby, turbaned Taliban gunmen stood guard on corners and boys hawked white Taliban flags. The atmosphere was busy but watchful; shopkeepers were welcoming but cautious about speaking frankly; and public opinion was of two minds and two generations.
Abdul Ghafour, 68, a white-bearded scribe at a sidewalk table who records legal petitions for illiterate people, was using a new form with the Islamic Emirate seal printed at the top. He is content with the new rulers, he said, “because they have brought calm and security to the people. It used to be dangerous to go from my village to the city because of robbers,” he said. “Now, since they hanged up those criminals, I have no worries.”
Two blocks away, a beardless man in his 30s named Ahmad Amiri was perched nervously inside a motorcycle repair shop. He said he had worked for several international aid agencies and was afraid of being harassed by the new authorities. “I don’t feel safe anywhere,” he said in a low voice. “There have been threats against people like me, and some are being targeted. I loved my work, but I know that is all over now. I am very sad for our country.”
In another part of the city, the imposing governor’s compound was guarded by more turbaned gunmen in American military Humvees. Once it was the domain of Ismael Khan, a legendary, gray-bearded anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia leader who governed Herat province for years and held public audiences round-the-clock, hearing petitioners’ problems and ordering underlings to help.
This week, lines of supplicants were again waiting outside the gates each morning, hoping for a few words or a scrawled signature from Vice Gov. Muhajir, a 27-year-old former fighter who had never held public office.
On Sunday morning, a poor man straggled in after the well-dressed crowd and was stopped by the guards. He said he was a former soldier with six children who had not been paid in months, and that he had some carpentry skills. He was carrying a used rice sack with some tools and a set of drills inside.
“I thought maybe that this was the place to look for work now,” he said.