KABUL The grass has grown in Kabul's soccer stadium where the Taliban used to stage public executions, but few Afghans dare visit in the evenings, believing that the souls of the victims still roam the sprawling grounds.
"Too much blood has flown here," says Mohammad Nasim as he mowed the lush green grass in the stadium under a warm afternoon sun, a little oasis ringed by brown hills away from the bustle of the street.
The goalposts, where the black-turbaned Taliban used to force convicts to kneel before executing them or from which they hung the severed arms or legs of thieves for all to see, have been given a fresh coat of white paint.
New portraits of Afghanistan's leaders, including late King Zahir Shah, President Hamid Karzai, anti-Taliban hero Ahmad Shah Masood and the country's latest star, Olympic taekwondo bronze medalist Rohallah Nikpai, hang from the empty stands.
The Afghanistan Olympic Committee has set up its office in the stadium's red building and there are pictures of Nikpai, the country's first Olympic medal winner, being feted.
But try as they might, few Afghans can put behind them the brutality of the Taliban years when men, and sometimes cowering women in their pale blue, all-enveloping burqas, were brought into the stadium to be either stoned or shot dead at close range.
Others had limbs amputated for crimes ranging from robbery to adultery and murder.
The stands would be full of people, including children, either coming of their own volition or brought in to witness how the Taliban enforced its version of justice.
"Now nobody comes here in the evening, even we don't go inside," says Nabeel Qari, a young guard at the entrance to the stadium. "Everyone believes the place is haunted, that the souls of the dead people are not at rest even now."
BODIES FLUNG INTO VANS
The Taliban also executed convicts in a huge open ground across the street from the stadium, where they would bring them in the back of open-topped vans, shoot them in the head at close range and fling the bodies back in the vans.
Nasim said he saw two of his relatives shot dead and another hanged in the soccer stadium for possessing arms that a Taliban court concluded in a summary trial were intended to be used against them.
He remembers people streaming into the stadium to watch the executions. It was usually over within minutes, with the men lined up near the soccer field's penalty spot and shot, blood oozing out as they slumped to the ground.
Some people shouted Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) from the stands as they watched.
"My relatives were innocent, like so many others who died here," Nasim said.
So much blood has been spilled on the football field and seeped into the soil below that Nasim says a previous attempt to grow grass there failed.
Then the Afghan government asked the company that he worked for to redevelop the stadium in a project costing about $50,000. The soil was dug up to a depth of half a meter and replaced.
"We put a new layer of soil so that players would not be stepping on to the blood of so many people," Nasim said.
Last month his team worked overtime to make sure the grass was freshly watered and the stadium spruced up for taekwondo star Nikpai's welcome party.
"We are working hard to ensure this again becomes a good place for sports," Nasim says.
(Editing by Paul Tait)