Cowering in the bathroom: Some Afghans dread the Taleban knock at door

The Taleban's brutal enforcement of its version of Islamic law the last time it was in power is one reason that many in Afghanistan are now fearing for their safety. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (REUTERS) - When armed members of the Afghan Taleban knocked on the door of their Kabul apartment, the family of 16 inside had crammed into the bathroom, turned off the lights and mobile phones and covered the children's mouths to keep them quiet.

They did not know what to expect, but did not want to take any risks. Two family members had already been killed in recent years and they had watched the wave of assassinations across Afghanistan over the last 12 months that the ousted Afghan government blamed on Taleban insurgents.

In Kabul alone, US Embassy records show that 152 people died in targeted killings between December and July. The records do not attribute blame for the deaths; the Taleban, then fighting against the government, has largely denied involvement.

"My family is in fear. Every second they see a car pass up the road, they run to the washroom," said one family member, who is trying to get his relatives out of the country and appealing to multiple governments to get them visas.

"Food is limited and prices went up," he said. "The situation for my family is terrible."

The scene, recounted by a relative who lives abroad and who declined to be identified for fear of endangering the family, has been repeated in homes across the country since the Taleban seized city after city in a lightning advance.

Activists, women, former officials, journalists, former soldiers and members of now-defunct intelligence agencies believe they have reason to fear for their safety, despite Taleban assurances that they do not seek revenge and will give women rights.

The Taleban's brutal enforcement of its version of Islamic law the last time it was in power is one reason. Fresher in the memory is the death of scores of people working to sustain a liberal version of Islam in Afghanistan over the past year.

Social media feeds have begun featuring grainy mobile phone footage of armed men searching houses or beating people in the street. Reuters could not independently verify them, but they have added to the climate of fear among people trapped in homes looking for information online.

A Taleban spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the door-to-door searches this week and intimidatory tactics.

At its first press conference since taking power, the Taleban said women would be allowed to work in accordance with Islamic law, that non-governmental organisations should continue to operate and that the movement was not out to settle scores.

'No trust'

Thousands of people are trying to flee the Taleban's rule in Afghanistan. PHOTO: AFP

That has done little to reassure some Afghans. Reuters spoke to four families in hiding in Afghanistan.

One of two government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said he and his family had tried to get on a flight out of Kabul last weekend as Taleban soldiers were at the city gates, but they failed.

"There is no trust," he said, referring to the Taleban's public comments earlier in the week.

Thousands of people are trying to flee and Western governments have said they would work to evacuate people from Kabul, but there has been chaos in and around the airport where United States forces are inside the perimeter and Taleban guards outside.

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Another former government official said the Taleban appeared to know details of his job and possessions when they turned up to question him. He said his car was taken and he has since gone underground.

"What we see is a campaign of intimidating people by going to their homes, looking for them," said Mr Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

"Not necessarily for arresting or killing them, but that is already scary enough and it also shows that they have prepared lists and know which people they are looking for."

According to Mr Ajmal Omar Sinwari, spokesman for the Afghan security forces before they were defeated, most at risk were special forces troops and police, and counter-terrorism personnel.

A Norwegian intelligence report shared with the United Nations said that the Taleban was rounding up military, police and intelligence officials, and that it would arrest family members of anyone who failed to show up for questioning.

Amnesty International said an investigation found that the Taleban had murdered nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province last month, raising fears that the Taleban, whose members are mostly Sunni Muslims will target Hazaras, mostly from the Shi'ite minority.

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German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle said that Taleban members who were hunting one of its journalists shot dead a member of his family and severely injured another, adding that three more of its journalists had had their homes raided.

Taleban spokesmen have not responded to requests for comment on the reports.

A women's rights activist who lives in Kabul said that most of the women she knew had tried to flee the country or gone into hiding. She added that many were trying to make their digital footprint disappear.

In a matter of days, women had stopped communicating, even privately, deleting their Facebook profiles and leaving WhatsApp groups.

"They think that the Taleban might be checking it," said the activist.

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