Kabul, Afghanistan – For the past 20 years, the Kartei Sakhi Shrine in western Kabul has been one of the main gathering places for the annual Ashura commemorations in the city.
Every year, thousands of men, women and children in black robes and green diadems flock to this shrine to honor what they consider to be the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
This year, Ashura falls on the fifth day of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the top of the hill on which the blue-domed shrine sits is barren.
What used to be a sea of people walking from the courtyard to the sanctuary are now only a few hundred stragglers.
The streets leading to the shrine, including the one at Kabul University, used to be closed to traffic as masses of people with “Ya Hussein” banners came up the hill and entered the shrine.
Sayed Yusuf, an elder in the community, says the Taliban have assured him and other elders that nothing would happen and that no one should fear coming to the shrine this year.
“They told us that if someone bothers us or harasses us to tell them,” he said standing near a security checkpoint that in years past was full of people waiting to be searched before entering the courtyard.
At 9am on Thursday (4:30 GMT), it was empty. With no one queuing to get in, the teens running security checks were forced to play with their mobile phones.
On the way to the sanctuary, another teenager checks the cars and hands them parking receipts near the entrance gates.
Guarantees like those of the Taliban are important to the Shiite community, which in recent years have been the target of violent attacks claimed by ISIL (ISIS), including assaults during previous Ashura commemorations. At least 18 people were delicate after a gunman opened fire on Shiite mourners at the Sakhi shrine in 2016.
Furthermore, when the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they were accused of massacres against the nation’s Hazara ethnic group, which makes up the majority of Afghanistan’s Shiite population.
This year, however, the group was very careful not to create the impression of a sectarian division, and Kartei Sakhi attendees said the Taliban left them alone on this day.
When the Taliban first arrived in Kabul, the city was already littered with Ashura flags, banners and portals, all of which remained standing.
During his five-year tenure, it would have been unthinkable to erect such things in public. Likewise, on Tuesday, members of the armed group attended a ceremony with Shiite worshipers in remembrance of Imam Hussein.
Having presented itself as a religious authority, the group is also careful to avoid the religious errors for which former President Ashraf Ghani repeatedly faced criticism and ridicule.
Most notably, in 2015, when Ghani referred to Hussein as “the grandson of God.”
“They are here, but they said they would leave us alone and call if we need help,” said Najibullah, an aide who also works as additional security. He said that although he has been dating since Monday, the first day of the Taliban rule, others still feel uncomfortable returning to normal life.
“It will take time, but little by little things are returning to normal,” he said sitting at the entrance of the sanctuary. He says he has moved around the city in recent days and has never been detained or harassed, something that would have been far less likely when the group first ruled the country.
‘Wait until they feel comfortable’
But Rahmatullah, another nearby aide, says people shouldn’t be so quick to breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Although he was barely a teenager when the Taliban first seized power, recall that experience to evaluate this week.
Wait until they feel comfortable. Last time, things were good for about two weeks, then they did what they wanted. “
He was referring to the strict interpretation of Islam by the Taliban, which dictated all aspects of life in Afghanistan for five years.
Najibullah agrees, but wants to be hopeful.
“There are reports on Facebook, but much of what is posted online is just hearsay.”
One such report was the alleged taking down of Ashura banners in Kandahar, allegedly by the Taliban.
However, Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify those reports.
Najibullah says that if things can continue as they are now, he would be happy.
“We are stuck with them now, but if women can continue to work and they don’t have to fully cover themselves in the chadari [burqa], then that’s good. “
At a press conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “Women are going to be very active in society but within the framework of Islam. Women are a key part of society and we guarantee all their rights within the limits of Islam. “
He also spoke out against the media that could try to divide the Afghan people: “When it comes to ethnic differences, religious differences and hostilities, they should not be promoted by the media, which should work in the country so that unity of the nation Have a peaceful fraternal coexistence “.
This could likely have been a reference to the Facebook reports that both men were referring to.
Rahmatullah again warns his friend to temper his optimism. “Of course, we hope it continues like this, but history is not on its side.”
It points to the fact that in years past, even with the threat of attacks from ISIL and Pakistani armed groups, there would be thousands of people gathered in the same place where they were.
“It’s not about today, it’s about the future. Until people feel confident about their future, who will come out. Even for Ashura? “