Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar served as the main headquarters for the former Taleban leaders during their six years of rule in Afghanistan. Now it is a city coming back to life.
Dusty plains surround the highway from Quetta, Pakistan, across the border into Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The flat horizon is punctuated by the occasional camel caravan, led by the region's nomad tribes. And as the city of Kandahar draws near, littered along the road are the wrecks of tanks, abandoned by fleeing Taleban forces, or perhaps Soviet forces, a dozen years earlier.
For a city targeted by U.S.-led forces because it served as the headquarters for the extremist Taleban regime, the city of Kandahar is surprisingly vibrant - not the city coming-out-from-under-siege, as I had expected. Men driving horses and carts compete for space in the city center with motorbikes and cars - many of the latter said to be smuggled into the country from Iran.
Local markets do a brisk trade in all of life's necessities, everything from traditional caps to roti bread, eggs, and livestock. An almost daily stop of mine was a bakery, with sugar cookies that reminded me of Christmas.
It is a far cry from the Kandahar of just a few years ago. Leslie Oqvist, from the United Nations Regional Coordination Office, has been working in Kandahar for more than five years. "When I came here in '96 for the first time to southern Afghanistan, for example, there was no electricity on the streets," he said. "It was like a medieval city; it was oil lamps out on the streets. There were no people, no taxis, no rickshaws - nothing."
Mr. Oqvist says the situation in Kandahar improved under the Taleban regime, whose oppressive rule brought a measure of stability to the area after years of civil war. But that is nothing compared to how it improved since the Taleban was forced from power. "Now, after this most recent turmoil, I see children go to school and mosque," he said. "I see happy girls go to school. I saw the other day a video arcade [and] people listening to music. This is a tremendous development, and I am so happy to see this, because it is freedom for people to [do] whatever they like."
Despite covering my head, it was clear that a western woman journalist working in Kandahar city would simply be a spectacle for a local population that for years had been largely isolated from the outside world - a population that is more accustomed to every girl into her teens covering herself from head-to-toe in a traditional burqa.
Crowds followed me through markets. Children threw marble-sized stones in what I took to be playful flirtation.
A few people approach with a specific message to impart to the outside world - at what they justifiably perceive to be a critical time in Afghanistan's history.
A man said he came from Herat province to tell Kandahar's governor that the authorities in Herat are treating members of the Pashtun minority harshly, and that something should be done.
But most people I spoke to said they agreed with the decision by Afghanistan's interim administration to form a multi-ethnic government, an experiment in democratic pluralism Afghanistan has never tried before.
"We definitely want the entire country to work together now," said one man.
"We have to work together for Afghanistan," said another "and we like working together."
Kandahar revealed itself to me as a remarkably resilient city, a testament to both old-fashioned ingenuity and the human drive to constantly improve one's lot in life.