Streets that were once bustling with life have fallen silent. Few women dare to leave their homes. Fighters patrol the neighborhoods.
Welcome to the new Kabul, a city ruled by fear of the Taliban.
“It’s like a zombie apocalypse,” a 20-year-old women’s rights activist told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Around Kabul airport, chaos reigns as thousands gather, desperate to flee before the August 31 deadline for the US withdrawal.
But everywhere else, the streets are strangely quiet.
“People hardly ever go out and (when they do) they are in a rush,” the activist says. “People are going home as soon as they can.”
Under the fallen government, an increasing number of women adopted Western clothes, attended university, and worked.
Now, even in Kabul, women hardly venture out of their homes. Burqa sales have exploded.
Many Afghans fear a repeat of the blunt interpretation of Islamic law that the Taliban implemented when they took power from 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban have promised a gentler and more inclusive regime this time around, offering guarantees of rights for women.
However, the activist says she has not been able to return to university since the Taliban’s resounding military victory on August 15.
She says hardliners don’t want women to attend classes until they can separate classes based on gender.
“I think it’s a silly decision,” she says, because there just aren’t enough female teachers at the university.
The bank she works for has also banned her from returning, fearing for her safety.
The reign of fear
On the walls of the city, advertising posters featuring female models were either damaged or torn off.
Pop music, purely and simply banned under the former Taliban regime, is no longer heard in Kabul.
Only the sound of children playing – perhaps oblivious to the depth of the transformation underway in their homeland – breaks the silence.
Widespread fear, says a Kabul banker, is playing to the advantage of the Taliban as they seek to establish dominance.
“They don’t have an army to control people but fear controls everyone,” he said on condition of anonymity.
As the Taliban leadership strives to project the image of an organized movement capable of governing, the reality on the ground is that the behavior of militants varies considerably from place to place.
“Some groups behave well and well, but some of them go to restaurants without paying,” explains the banker.
‘Normal’ in Khost
In the southeastern town of Khost, long a conservative town seized by the Taliban shortly before the fall of Kabul, activists appear to have taken a softer approach.
“After a few days, the situation returned to normal. The flow of the city has slowed down but many shops and small businesses have now reopened,” a local aid worker told AFP.
“The boys and girls are going to school like before,” he says.
“The Taliban’s attitude towards the people is much sweeter than people thought,” he adds, noting that he danced with friends at a wedding held last week.
However, some residents fear economic hardship, especially with the shutdown of government services.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs, they are afraid of a bad economic situation,” he says.
No money to rebuild
At the market in the northern town of Kunduz, Taliban activists use loudspeakers to announce their new rules to residents.
Devastated by weeks of fighting leading up to the Taliban victory, the city is now beginning to rebuild, although progress is slow.
“People have started to rebuild their stores but not their houses because people have fled and have not returned, or do not have the money to rebuild,” a local trader told AFP.
Some of the poorest residents are so afraid of the impact the change in diet might have that they have stopped buying fruit and even using soap, he says.
“They think they should save because in the future there is no way to make any money.”