When Dr. Abdel Ateef returned to his clinic in Taloqan last week for the first time in over a year, he found the place looted. The Taliban had retaken Taloqan in September 2000, and the doctor and his family were forced to flee this city for a nearby town. Before the capture of Taloqan by Northern Alliance forces on Nov. 11, Ateef directed a very small clinic in Farkhar, about 20 miles from here.
After Taloqan's liberation, Atef decided to return. As he opened the door to his office, he discovered that retreating Taliban forces had carted off the clinic's most valuable medicines. But the doctor prepared to reopen nonetheless, taking inventory and instructing local hospital staff to clean the rooms and halls. Problems with electricity had plunged the small collection of buildings into darkness. Earlier in the day, Ateef had been to see general Daoud Khan, the commander of the local forces, with a delegation of doctors, to request fuel and a working generator for the clinic.
In Taloqan, anyone requesting critical supplies must go directly to Khan to plead his case. The general holds office hours in the middle of a green field marked by an uncovered dry well, handing out hundreds of slips of paper to a crowd of fighters and medical professionals, some of which were orders, others requests for ammunition and fuel.
Ateef's clinic, which is divided into two sections, one for men and another for women, serves as the major hospital for the region, and many people from the surrounding farms come here when traditional medicine fails to provide a cure. Despite the terrible conditions here, it is an outpost of scientific medicine in a part of the world which spends most of its time in the fifth century.
Ateef was happy to show a visitor an x-ray film of a womans fractured leg. "Now that she is here, she is getting proper treatment," he said proudly.
Sanitary conditions leave a lot to be desired, and would motivate any injured Westerner to immediately beg to be evacuated to hospitals in Turkey or Tajikistan. As one visitor remarked, "If youre a fly in Afghanistan, every day is Christmas." Clouds of flies drifted in the halls of Ateefs clinic, and medical waste littered the floor.
Not all of the patients at the clinic were there because of failed local cures. Some families with sick relatives had been hiding in their houses waiting for the war to leave town before seeking medical attention. After Northern Alliance forces entered this city on Nov. 11, one family felt it was finally safe to take a sick child to the clinic.
Saif Ulla, 22, brought his 3 year old son with a kidney stone to the clinic for treatment. "We were scared and couldnt go out of our houses. One of my uncles was killed by the Taliban, when they first attempted to take Taloqan, three years ago." Ullas son rested on a cot while his kidneys drained into plastic bags lying on the dusty floor.
Down the hall, a group of six women -- three doctors and three nurses -- were having a meeting on their first day at work since the Taliban arrived in this city just over a year ago. They were jubilant to be back.
Dr. Fawzia Shafiz described what it was like it was to work under Taliban control. The Taliban's prohibition against women holding jobs did not always include doctors, since they are in short supply, but women doctors were highly restricted in what they could do. "I was not allowed to treat patients directly, and instead had to write down my instructions on paper, so they could be treated by men," she said. Shafiz also wasnt allowed to leave her house, which made it nearly impossible to practice medicine.
When the women were asked why they werent wearing burqas, they replied that hospital rules required that they perform their duties without the tent-like garment, a full length covering that makes the wearer look like a halloween ghost. A small perforated screen allows the woman to see forward but in no other direction.
Still, the burqa hasn't been completely abandoned in this part of Afghanistan, which is mostly free of the Taliban. It is still common to see groups of women drifting down the street wearing white burqas. Some fear devout elemnts in the Northern Alliance may keep up the Taliban's restrictions on women; others may choose to cover themselves voluntarily.
At Ateef's clinic, during a discussion with male foreign visitors, all of the female doctors and nurses, one by one, smiled and slowly removed their brightly patterned headscarves. Asked the best way the West could help Afghanistan, the six women at times all spoke at once, filling the small room with their energy.
"First, you must end the bloodshed," Dr. Shafiz emphatically replied, her raven hair uncovered. "Then help us build a proper country with equal rights and womens rights so that we can take part in government."
"The burqas are not Afghanistans biggest problem," one of the doctors added. "Schools, hospitals, roads. These are the important things."
But an outspoken midwife named Meena had the last word about burqas: "Give me enough petrol, and I will burn them all. Watch, Ill be the first one to do it."