KABUL (Reuters) - The ageing Ariana Afghan Airlines Boeing 727 took off from Islamabad with about 10 passengers, myself included, huddled near the exits, bound for war-torn Kabul months after the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
The Afghan capital had been consigned to rubble by rocket-propelled grenades and artillery fire, first in fighting between mujahideen warriors and the Soviets after their invasion in 1979, and then between different mujahideen factions.
The airport was fringed with burnt-out fighter planes and scores of people, a skewer in each hand, scouring the tarmac for landmines. Someone put a ladder up against the fuselage, opened a flap, poured in some liquid and threw the empty can over his shoulder.
Fast forward 16 years, or four World Cups.
I fly in from Dubai, sipping red wine as we descend into Kabul, a city transformed from rubble into a bustling capital, though still visibly plagued by the escalating war with Taliban insurgents.
The centre of the city is a heavily protected zone of concrete fortresses, razor wire and well-protected checkpoints. The ruins of an office building near the presidential palace bear witness to a massive bomb last year that killed 150 people.
But in other areas, such as in the west of the city, shining blocks of flats have replaced the debris, behind lines of stalls and shops selling fresh vegetables, smart phones, fashion and kitchenware and the all-important building materials.
The memory of women bowed by the all-enveloping burqa, enforced under Taliban rule, trudging past destroyed homes is also fading amid talk of possible further Taliban ceasefires, upcoming elections, the national cricket team’s first “test” match against India - and the World Cup.
“The city has been transformed,” said Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of ArtLords, a group promoting Afghan culture that is best known for painting murals on the city’s many concrete blast walls.
“On the street, boys and girls are walking together. … There is art, culture and music. People are contributing. People are being more kind.”
The heavy security presence across Kabul underscores the danger that continues to face the city, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded in attacks this year and where regular blackouts and flooding make life a misery for many.
But amid the danger, prosperity has improved for fortunate members of Kabul’s middle class, which grew up on the flood of money that came into the city following the U.S.-led campaign that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
Four women, their made-up faces free of veils, giggle as their car takes on what have become heavily jammed streets of workaday Kabul. A top-of-the-range tailor shows off his ware in a long, air-conditioned shop that would not be out of place in Paris.
“Business is good now and getting better,” the tailor said. “My quality is number one. European standards. I am happy.”
A few cafes have popped up down lanes where musicians and artists, who thrived in the pre-Soviet invasion days, have returned. But this part of the city is also home to many fair-skinned Hazaras, an Afghan minority often targeted by militants.
After civil war in the early 1990s, which destroyed much of the city, the Taliban took control in 1996, imposing strict Islamic law. After a brief respite following the 2001 campaign, the city has been subjected to wave after wave of suicide attacks.
“That was the darkest period,” said Sharifi of the years of Taliban rule. “You couldn’t even listen to music.”
He remembers being taken to see football matches by his father. Twice, the games were preceded by executions.
“My father tried to protect me and close my eyes. But a kid’s curiosity - I could see with one eye. A bunch of guys turned up in three cars and killed the men. Like sheep.”
So what next for the fast-growing capital, sitting up against the khaki mountains of the Hindu Kush? An unprecedented three-day ceasefire by the Taliban over last month’s Eid al-Fitr festive period brought them roaming into the capital for hugs and selfies and raised hopes for a longer peace.
“You can’t ignore the Taliban,” Sharifi said. “But there are red lines. If they come back and join the political process, we will be there with our art. People can’t just keep killing.”
The tailor agreed.
“If the Taliban come back, it will be with a new government, not like before,” he said. “We will have a good future if there is no fighting.”
Editing by Michael Perry and James Mackenzie