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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Afghanistan, most of the violence is happening in the south and the east of the country. In the north, it's a different story; the area is relatively calm. But there are simmering tensions among the ethnic groups there, which could get worse ahead of Afghanistan's presidential election.

NPR's Jackie Northam traveled to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif and sent this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There's something that occurs as you cross Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountain range and start heading north. The war that's being fought in the rest of the country begins to seem a long way away. It's more than just the miles you put behind you, it's a mindset.

(Soundbite of city)

NORTHAM: This is particularly true on the busy streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the region. It's an energetic city without the huge blast walls that dominate the landscape of Kabul. The people in the city and region are an ethnic mix of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmen, reflecting the countries that border this area of Afghanistan. What you don't find here is a large number of Pashtuns, the predominant ethnic group in the rest of Afghanistan.

Reza Husseini, an archaeologist in Mazar-e-Sharif, says that's a good thing. He equates the Pashtuns with the Taliban.

Mr. REZA HUSSEINI (Archaeologist): In a place that you see the Pashtun people, even in a small village, in a big district or big province, you will see al-Qaida there. You will see the narcotic drugs there. You will see everything, you know - the attacks, everything.

NORTHAM: Husseini says many people in the north feel bad for those suffering the violence in the other parts of the country. But…

Mr. HUSSEINI: They think why these people accept the Taliban? Why these people cooperate with the Taliban? Why these people support the Taliban? And they know the Taliban, you know, burn their houses, their schools, they will kill everybody they can find. The people in the north, they think, why these people do this? Why?

NORTHAM: Certainly the people in northern Afghanistan have reason to fear the Taliban. There was widespread violence in the late 1990s as the Islamist group fought for control of the area. At one point in 1998, Taliban fighters targeted the ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiites considered heretics by the Taliban. Conservative numbers put the death toll at 2,000.

Dr. Nagafeez Zardar, himself an Hazara, was in Mazar-e-Sharif at the time.

Dr. NAGAFEEZ ZARDAR: (Through Translator) I know many people who were killed by the Taliban. They were my friends. We discovered a mass grave. We took out eight bodies and buried them separately.

NORTHAM: Sitting in his garden sipping orange juice, Zardar recalls how Pashtun friends hid him and his family in their homes. Because of that experience, Zardar says he doesn't harbor any ill will towards the Pashtun. But he knows that memories last a long time in this area, and says that while many people in the north tolerate the Pashtun, there isn't a lot of trust.

(Soundbite of chanting)

NORTHAM: An old blind man sits cross-legged, hands open to any offerings outside the Shrine of Khwaja Parsa in the city of Balkh, a half-hour drive from Mazar-e-Sharif. Balkh is known as the mother of cities. Alexander the Great used it as his base in 329 B.C. Genghis Khan virtually destroyed it in the early 13th century. Today, Balkh is a Pashtun stronghold, one of the few in northern Afghanistan, and it's where the Taliban found refuge during the last days of its regime in late 2001.

Hello.

Mr. BOLLUM RESOOL: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Bollum Resool runs a pharmacy on the main street of Balkh. He remembers how bad things were here after the Taliban were overthrown.

Mr. RESOOL: (Through Translator) In 2001, there were problems between the Pashtun and all the other groups. But now it's getting better little by little.

NORTHAM: But Khozi Mohammed Sahmy, head of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Mazar-e-Sharif, says the run-up to the August 20th presidential election could bring trouble.

Mr. KHOZI MOHAMMED SAHMY (Independent Human Rights Commission): (Through Translator) Every ethnic group is supporting its own leaders. It won't take much to spark trouble.

NORTHAM: Sahmy says he does not want to return to the days of feuding warlords.

Mr. SAHMY: (Through Translator) It's always like we go one step ahead and two steps backward. That's what happens here.

NORTHAM: People here are also increasingly worried about the deteriorating security situation in the neighboring province of Kunduz. Taliban insurgents appear to be making inroads there. If that spreads, there are fears that the calm here in Mazar-e-Sharif could evaporate.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Mazar-e-Sharif.

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