3 Xanadu Redux


Dostrom's compound, photos by Scott Carrier
compound in Sherbigan resembles a Soviet Club Med in decline. There are two pools, one indoors and one outdoors, both empty and breaking apart. The outdoor pool is deep and has a diving platform, surrounded by a concrete patio with lights for night-time parties. The indoor pool is housed in the strangest building I've ever seen, made from concrete but fantastical in style, a mixture of Bauhaus and Dr. Seuss. The doors are chained shut, but I can see the pool through the broken windows -- long and shallow, perhaps for the women.

In the center of the compound, which is about the size of a city block and surrounded by a wall, is Dostum's residence, a modest two-story beach house. Beyond is a garden with long rows of rose bushes and fruit trees, sidewalks and benches, a small Mosque in one corner, and a large fountain, also made of concrete, in the shape of an opium poppy. A giant concrete poppy fountain, dry and out of order.

The biggest building in the compound is the guest house -- four stories high and running along the northern wall bordering the main street of the town. It has a kitchen and about thirty bedrooms with real beds, and a long conference room on the third floor where Dostum is meeting with more than 100 local mullahs and commanders. The room is remarkable in that it is clean and has new stuff in it -- a red carpet, black felt drapes, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, new couches and upholstered chairs, and a 48-inch Sony television with a satellite connection. The men are sitting in the chairs and cross-legged on the floor, wearing turbans on their heads and blankets wrapped around their shoulders, older men with gray beards, all ethnic Uzbeks and Imoks. Only two weeks before this city and even this guest house had been occupied by the Taliban. (They cut out the heads of the deer in the pastoral murals in the hallways.) For three years these mullahs and commanders have been in hiding in the mountains, while Dostum was in self-imposed exile in Turkey and other places. But now he's back. He's dressed in velour like a medieval monarch -- a big man with a round face, black woolly caterpillar eyebrows, and salt and pepper hair and beard trimmed short and neat. He looks like a big teddy bear, and I have a strong urge to give him a squeeze, but I don't because I know he's a powerful warlord who is reportedly so evil that his laugh has frightened men to death, and so cruel that he once tied a man to the treads of a tank and then watched as he was crushed into mincemeat. He sided with the Soviets during the 1980s and built his army by running drugs, although no one speaks of this. (And, by the way, no one writes of the essential relationship between guns and drugs in Afghanistan for just this reason -- it's too dangerous.) During the 1990s, when Afghanistan was torn by civil war, Dostum sided with everyone and no one, making and breaking many promises, and surviving when many others did not.

More photos from Dostrom's compound

One of the older men, a mullah, stands and tells Dostum that his office in a near-by town has no furniture or carpets left, that the Taliban took everything. "Here you have new things," he says, "but we have nothing left, not even a desk."

Dostum takes this in stride and tells the man that these things will not be a problem, but that they will take some time. He has only just now arrived in town. A younger man stands, a commander, and tells Dostum that there are still Taliban soldiers hiding in bunkers outside his village and that they have threatened to die fighting before they surrender. Dostum tells him to tell the Taliban that their resistance is futile -- either they surrender or they will be bombed by U.S. planes until there will be none of them left.

A man walks to the center of the room holding a sheet of paper in his shaking hands. He stands there and looks at the paper and then he starts to sing. It's a dirge, with many verses, telling of battles where brothers and friends fought bravely but were lost. The men in the room are transported in space and time, some of them sob, tears falling onto the blankets around their chests. There's something very heavy in the room. I can't see it but I can feel it. These men don't want to fight anymore. Not because they are afraid of fighting, but because they are really very tired of fighting.

To the Hotel...

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