Byline: LUCY MORGAN EDWARDS
IT'S THE place Osama Bin Laden calls home - the desert city of Kandahar, deep in southern Afghanistan and the true power base of the Taliban, where their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has his heavily defended compound.
For a number of months last year it was also home to LUCY MORGAN EDWARDS, 33, a freelance journalist now living in central London, who worked there for an aid agency under the auspices of the United Nations. Here, Lucy, who is single and the daughter of a retired solicitor, describes in vivid detail the day-today life of a young Western woman surviving at the heart of that brutal regime
AS DUSK fell, the last rays of sunlight reflected from the turquoise-domed roof of the Ahmad Shah Babur mosque. A lone voice sang out the call to prayer, and the sea of black turbaned heads began to move slowly inside.
In the safety of my vehicle, I pulled my chador - the two-metre scarf I had to wear to cover my head and shoulders - closer to my face, anxious not to be noticed, yet transfixed by the scene.
Being seen at the mosque was not sensible for any woman, let alone a Western one. For here, at evening prayer, were the fighters of perhaps the most reviled regime of modern times.
These young men, with their fineboned features and kohl-rimmed eyes, were the Islamic warriors of the Taliban regime, gathered in the city of Kandahar, de facto capital of Afghanistan since their seizure of the country in 1997, and now the focus of the Western world's war on terrorism.
If there is one place above all others that the military might of America may be focused in the coming months, it is this crumbling city.
I had arrived last year to join an aid project to tackle the problems of a three-year drought. Today, those problems are just as devastating but compounded by the plight of refugees streaming out of the cities.
The starving children pictured in the Mail last week were a haunting symbol of the struggle now facing Afghans under the Taliban regime.
Two Afghan staff had met me at Quetta, a border town in Pakistan, and from there we had driven for seven hours over the Khojak pass and across the Registan desert to Kandahar. THIS ancient city was once an oasis, famed for dried fruit and pomegranates. Today, it is a shell of its former self. After the Russian invasion in 1979, before the emergence of the Taliban, Kandahar saw some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan. The city was reduced to rubble, and its orchards and irrigation systems destroyed.
Now, most of the 300,000 population are housed in newly constructed mud camps to the north of the city. In the centre, only fragments of the old Arab buildings remain. There is an overwhelming stench from the sewers, filled with human waste, rubbish and dirt, which run down the streets.
As I was driven around the city on my first day there, it became clear that the only rebuilding was of the glittering new mosques favoured by the Taliban, on sites where previously cinemas now banned - had once stood.
Kandahar has never been developed.
On every street, dozing shopkeepers in open-fronted shops sold spices or handcrafted household items, such as tin pots. Poverty meant that transport was by donkey, rickshaw or pony and trap. Even men pulled carts.
In stark contrast to the ordinary people were the Taliban, who cruised around town in pickups donated three years before by the Saudi royal family before it fell out with Bin Laden.
Home, for me, was a compound within several hundred yards of a house built by Bin Laden himself. He reputedly lived near Kandahar's airport on the edge of the city but had paid for the house near us for the Taliban's supreme leader, Omar.
Built in rough breeze-block style, it had a madrassah at one end. This was a so-called 'college', where young Talibs would go to be schooled in the Koran, but also in weaponry. …