DARA WAT, Afghanistan (AP) – Before he led the Taliban and became one of the worlds most hunted men, Mullah Mohammed Omar grew up an impoverished, fatherless boy in this dirt-street Afghan town.
With the Taliban a broken force, the turbaned men who roam Dara Wat in Toyotas reply with scowls to questions about the towns now infamous son. But theres no doubt about where their loyalties lie.
Whos Taliban? whispered one frightened old man. Everybodys Taliban!
The old man drew dark stares from the men around him in the central market. In the name of God, he mumbled, worried about repercussions for speaking to outsiders. Leave this place.
Dara Wat, a bustling farm town surrounded now by gently greening fields of opium poppies and budding almond orchards, thrives like few others in the south despite its remoteness in river-cut high plains.
Shawled men and pickup trucks vie for passage on mud streets dividing rows of open-fronted shops under sapling awnings. Elbows brush elbows and side mirrors scrape side mirrors. Women are nowhere to be seen – not even the gliding figures in burqas in the streets of other post-Taliban towns.
Afghanistans new government controls the town now with a heavy contingent of troops. But the government soldiers say Dara Wat is full of Taliban fighters lying low.
Townspeople say Taliban gunmen hold the neighborhood of the mosque, across the river from the citys market. Outsiders can go there, but they wont come back, the townspeople say.
The towns most prominent son is now the United States second most wanted man – after Osama bin Laden, the accused terrorist harbored for years by Omars hardline Islamic Taliban militia. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been unable to find bin Laden or Omar since the fall of the Taliban in December.
Yusuf Pashtun, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar, said Saturday that Omar was believed to be holed up in Afghanistans rugged central mountains in the northwest part of Uruzgan province.
Townspeople stress the ordinariness of the young Omars life: After his father died, his uncle married the widow, as local customs call for. The uncle made young Omar his ward.
Dara Wats prosperity drew the family, as it still does others today.
Arriving from the south, the uncle – an itinerant mullah – found a clerics post vacant in a one-roomed mud mosque with dirt courtyard. Young Omar lived with him in a mud-and-straw hut that came with the job.
In the years after Dara Wat, Omar would grow up to live in a villa in the southern city of Kandahar built by Osama bin Laden and featuring a mosque, trickling fountains and murals featuring everything Afghanistan was not – green, wealthy, serene.
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The uncle led prayer services for his familys supper, his only pay. Boys like Omar would be expected to do chores like repairing the mosque and helping the mullah.
Dara Wat knew Omars uncle only as Mullah Stranger – the name given wandering mullahs who pass through towns, a year or two at a time.
A white-bearded old man, was all the memory that Dara Wat cloth merchant Haji Nejar could summon up of the uncle. None of those questioned now said they remembered Omar from the time: Nobody had reason to.
A kid like hundreds of others here, Nejar said. Nobody knew his future.
The merchant was one of few men in Dara Wat willing to talk at any length to outsiders, and then only in the secrecy of his home.
If they are seen talking, townspeople say, Taliban will come round at night to ask why.
Like facts in innumerable other legends surrounding Omars life, accounts differ as to when he left Dara Wat, and why.
According to townspeople, it was about the time the Soviet army rolled into Afghanistan, in 1979.
Dara Wats people call the town then a stronghold of guerrilla fighters against the 10-year occupation. They bombed here from the first day to the last day, Nejar said.
By his account, Omar, then entering his 20s, became a refugee. Omar went to Singhesar, south of Dara Wat, and began holding held Muslim prayer services in exchange for money to feed his family – although under the self-given name of Amir-ul-Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful.
Dara Wats residents say they last saw the uncle in town a few years ago, driving a Toyota Corolla provided by his nephew.
Today, Dara Wat is crowded with what Afghans say are Taliban die-hards. Half the Taliban police force is here, says one soldier in the new U.S.-allied governments force. They just changed clothes, because theyre afraid of getting bombed.
The governments show of force here is stronger than elsewhere in the south. Government gunmen with rifles at each hand roll through the town; pickups flying the red, green and black Afghan banner race across the outskirts with heavy machine guns sticking out all sides.
The cloth merchant, having been seen talking to an outsider, now fears for his life if the Taliban come back. Yet he seems to hope that their enemies, the Americans, fall.
They come here, they kill Afghans, civilians, they make a base here, he said, and invoked the war that made a warrior out of Omar. Just like the Russians.
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