Life returning to a new normal as Taliban consolidate power

Gone are Western clothes favoured by the fashion-conscious in the Afghan capital, with men on the streets now wearing traditional shalwar kameez.

And there are hardly any women to be seen.

"The fear is there," said a shopkeeper Tuesday, asking not to be named after he opened his neighbourhood provisions store.

Life was returning to a new normal in Kabul as cautious residents ventured out of their homes to see what life would be like under the Taliban following their astonishing return to power at the weekend.

For some, it's as if the last 20 years never happened.

Already there are signs that people are changing the way they live to accommodate the return of the new hardline Islamist regime -- if not by direct order, then at least for self-preservation.

During their first stint in power -- from 1996 until 2001 when they were ousted by the US-led invasion in the wake of the September 11 attacks -- the Taliban ruled with a strict interpretation of the Koran and sharia law.

A swift whipping across the back of the legs by cadres from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was common for those tardying at prayer times.

Public floggings, amputations of limbs for thieves and even executions were scheduled for Fridays -- sometimes held at the national stadium.

A ban on mixed schools meant most girls could not get an education, and women were barred from working in scenarios where they may have contact with men.

There was no sign Tuesday that such strict measures had been re-introduced -- or even would be -- but people were taking no chances.

"People are scared of the unknown," another shopkeeper said.

"The Taliban are patrolling the city in small convoys. They don't harass people but of course the people are scared."

A sign of the new times was seen on the TV stations that proliferated during the Taliban's absence.

State TV is showing mostly pre-recorded Islamic programmes or announcements from Maulvi Ishaq Nizami -- a man introduced as the head of Voice of Sharia, the Taliban media outlet.

Tolo TV, the private channel which thrived over the past two decades on a mix of Western style game shows, soap operas and talent contests, has stopped most routine programming and is now showing repeats of a Turkish drama about the Ottoman empire.

They did, however, have a newscast with a female presenter interviewing a Taliban official.

On Tuesday the Taliban announced a "general amnesty" for all government officials, and urged them to return to work.

"You should start your routine life with full confidence," the announcement said -- and some appeared to take the advice to heart, with white-capped traffic police re-appearing on the streets for the first time in days, although it was not as busy as usual.

Suhail Shaheen, one of the Taliban's official spokesmen, repeated late Monday that women will not face any threat in the future.

"Their right to education is also protected," he said, but the Taliban have generally been vague in pronouncements on how they would rule Afghanistan, apart from saying it would be in accordance with Islamic principles.

And in one remarkable act of defiance, a handful of women protested briefly outside an entrance to the Green Zone, demanding the right to go back to their jobs as cooks or cleaners for the affluent within.

A truck full of Taliban fighters approached them and tried to shoo them away, but they stayed put until ordinary civilians persuaded them to leave.

Interaction with individual Taliban fighters on the streets has been mixed, however.

"Some have been friendly and give no trouble at all," said a man trying to get to his office past a Taliban checkpoint.

"But others are tough... they push you around and shout at you for no reason."

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