Sofiulah Amira couldn't believe his eyes when he returned home this week, five years after being forced out by Taliban gunmen - a victim of past Afghan-style ethnic cleansing that today is complicating peace efforts.
Taliban bulldozers smashed the mud-brick walls around Mr. Amira's once-shady courtyard. A tree now grows out of his well, while nearly every other tree in the district has been chopped down. Piles of rubble from homes Amira once knew spread toward the horizon.
"I didn't even think this was my village when I first came," he says, hoisting up his infant daughter Hassina for a better look across the parched wasteland. "When I finally found my house, I sobbed. How can we rebuild this?"
"They said this was a military area, but of course they did it because we are Tajiks," says Amira's former neighbor, Munawar Sabdari. His four-story house is flattened, too, posing a formidable task for the one man gamely shoveling at its base.
"Those Pashtun villages were not touched," he adds, waving his hand up the Shomali plain toward some foothill settlements. "But all the Tajik ones are flattened."
Such painful revelations are spreading across Afghanistan, as the rebel Northern Alliance - made up of a loose group of ethnic minorities including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras - tightens its grip on power in Kabul, advances against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in the south, and talks about creating a broad-based coalition government.
The ethnic-based cruelties that deepened divisions during the past decade of Afghanistan's civil war have been perpetrated by all parties here. It is ethnic cleansing as surely as that committed by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia and Hutus in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Overcoming that legacy is now the top challenge for the alliance. But Afghans say their case is different from those in the Balkans and Africa, because most people here attribute the atrocities of war to outside powers acting through proxies in Afghanistan - giving some hope that differences can be overcome.
United Nations special envoy Francesc Vendrell held fresh talks in Kabul yesterday aimed at organizing a meeting - preferably outside the country - of all Afghan political groups. "When we get an agreement with the Northern Alliance, it could happen in a matter of days," said UN spokesman Eric Falt.
Alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani vows that his group will not impose power, and promises to include all Afghan groups, including non-Taliban Pashtun leaders, in a coalition.
But it is the dynamic of ethnic cleansing evident on the Shomali plain, 15 miles north of Kabul, where Tajik villages are lifeless and Pashtun ones pristine, that could determine whether any leadership deal stands or falls.
Bad memories are easy to find. Amira remembers a man shot dead in front of his shop, when he refused to go when summoned by Taliban soldiers. Amira himself was locked up for two days and beaten with a cable.
"Many people were injured and killed. They said: 'Give us your guns. You are Masood's people," Amira says, referring to the assassinated alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, a Tajik.
Still, Amira doesn't blame all Pashtuns, only the Taliban, a distinction that may blur as Afghanistan settles into the process of peacemaking - and divvying up the spoils of victory.
"We live together with Pashtun people, and they didn't destroy our village," Amira says, as Hassina swings her head from side to side in his arms. "It was the Taliban and their Arab and Pakistani and Chechen allies. They are criminals, not those living here. We can live like brothers. It isn't the Afghans that are the problem, but our country's neighbors."
Kneeling to pray on a mat in the rubble of his house, Mr. Sabdari's brother, Mohammed Anwar, turns toward the destroyed mosque nearby. When he is done, he can't help but speak about Afghanistan's ethnic divide - how it is not all black-and-white.
"I'm only angry at the Taliban, not all Pashtun," Mr. Anwar says, still sitting on his mat, with long-overused shoes beside him. "There are many Tajiks who are Masood soldiers, but not all back him. It is the same with the Pashtun. They are not all Taliban."
What does he pray for, atop the mound that was once his house? "I am sad to pray here, but I have no other choice," he says. "I am thinking: How can I rebuild my home?"
Such a move may be premature. There are frequent reports of Taliban fighters hiding in the hills and Pashtun villages here, who come down to the valley and attack civilians. Two died three days ago, among several incidents in the week since the Northern Alliance captured Kabul. "Pashtun villages are unsafe because the Taliban are hiding there," says Baba Ghochkar, a traveler on the road. "The alliance is trying to get them, but they are not finished."
Jema Khan, an alliance fighter who agrees to act as a guard on a visit to the nearby Pashtun village of Solakhil, says, "My commander says we will check all the houses and the hills, because there may be many more Taliban left hiding."
Untrue, counter Pashtuns in Solakhil, which lies almost within sight of Amira's ruined Tajik village. "It was a military area, and the Taliban destroyed all those houses," says Amin Ahmadgul. "But we did not do that, because we are like brothers with these Tajiks. We are Pashtun, but not Taliban. People should not think of the Taliban as Pashtuns."
No Taliban are hiding here or in any other village, a group of villagers say. On the day alliance forces swept into Kabul, they found and took away a dozen Taliban fighters, the villagers say. But they agree there are still many hiding in the mountains.
Ahmadgul gives voice to a point made by many Afghans, of every ethnic group here. "We have been fighting for more than 20 years. Each group wanted to lead, but with no good result," he says. "I think the only solution now is to work together. We just want a peaceful solution with all ethnic groups represented."
Including the Taliban? "No, no," he says. "They destroyed all this place and killed all these people. We don't want them."