KANDAHAR -- Once the epicentre of the Taliban's iron-fisted Islamist government, Kandahar city is slowly transforming into a vibrant urban centre dotted with bustling cafes, co-ed universities and even a women's gym.
Every evening, young men head to the Arena club, a trendy cafe in the city of 700,000, to play snooker, watch football on a big screen or smoke shisha "hubble-bubble" pipes -- unthinkable when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
"There was no such place in Kandahar when we built it, and there is still no other such place in the [entire] south," said Nazir Ahmad, the 30-year-old owner of Arena.
But the city's youth fear such hard-earned freedoms are on the verge of being lost again as the Taliban ramp up attacks in their former heartland despite peace talks with the government.
Before the insurgents were overthrown by a US-led coalition in the wake of the September 11 attacks, they imposed a harsh version of Sharia law that banned all kinds of entertainment, from music and movies to kite flying.
The public floggings and executions in the city's squares still haunt residents, but Kandahar has undergone a huge transformation.
Women can now be seen riding side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles, families enjoy group picnics and several city spaces have illuminated fountains that spring up at sunset while street vendors serve hot Afghan dishes into the night.
Despite that progress, the Taliban in recent months have stepped up their campaign against Afghan forces in rural areas.
'What kind of peace?'
Kandahar city remains firmly in the control of government forces, but the Taliban are on the doorstep.
"I hope the Taliban have changed and will let this club remain open," Ahmad said.
In the city's upscale Ayno Maina neighbourhood, loud laughter rings out from the Cafe Delight, another trendy spot.
The cafe allows entry to female customers -- something still uncommon in the city.
"What kind of peace would it be if they closed down our cafe?" asked owner Mohammad Yasin.
"We will not comply if the Taliban tell us not to accept female customers."
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, girls were banned from school and women accused of crimes such as adultery were stoned to death at sports stadiums.
But since their ousting, women have made significant progress in cities, entering the work force in ambitious positions in the media, politics and even the security forces.
While they hope peace talks could bring much-needed security to the country, women in Kandahar fear losing some of their hard-won freedoms.
"There was only one school for girls, and now we have 15," said Mariam Durrani, 36, who has launched several initiatives for women -- including an education centre, a radio station and even a gym where some women attend classes secretly.
"There is a possibility that the Taliban may return and that restrictions could be imposed on women again," she said.
Some, however, have expressed cautious optimism, including Shukria Ali, who works at Radio Merman, a women-led station launched by Durrani that recently received a prize from international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
"Maybe the Taliban have changed," she told AFP, several weeks before a string of deadly and unclaimed attacks on journalists in the country.
The US military and Afghan officials have blamed the Taliban for the assassinations.
Her mother, Feroza, who was forced to quit working as a seamstress when the Taliban ruled, still talks little about those bleak years.
"If I go out without a burqa today, it's not a problem," said Feroza.
"But before [when the Taliban ruled], I would have been thrown in jail."
While Kandahar city seems to be secure, about 17,000 Afghan families from the province have fled their homes following months of heavy fighting between the insurgents and government forces, officials said.
Government forces and the Taliban have clashed regularly since October in Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
The insurgents have launched continual attacks in several districts on the outskirts of the provincial capital.
About 7,000 families -- or 35,000 residents -- from these districts have fled their homes and taken refuge in the capital, said Dost Muhammad Nayab, director of the Kandahar Refugees and Repatriations Department.
"We have set up camps and tents in several parts of the city for them. We have been able to provide only basic food items to about 2,000 families," he said.
A further 10,000 families have been forced to leave their villages and flee to neighbouring villages or to stay with relatives, said Sardar Mohammad Barani, director of the Natural Disasters Department in Kandahar.
The fighting is ongoing in some areas, said Barani, who predicted a "humanitarian crisis".
"It is freezing here. We have only a tent but no heater," said Zarghona, who was displaced from her home in Zharai District of Kandahar.
"Because of the fighting, we had to leave everything behind."
'Critical stage' in negotiations
Since the US-Taliban deal inked in February, the insurgents have mostly refrained from carrying out major attacks on cities but have launched near-daily assaults on Afghan forces in rural areas.
The second round of peace talks between the two warring sides resumed on Wednesday (January 6) in the Qatari capital of Doha even as violence continues to surge.
In the second round of talks, Afghan government negotiators will push for a permanent ceasefire and for protection of existing governance arrangements in place since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
"We want a ceasefire tomorrow, but we know the facts, and based on that, the peace talks will take time," First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said in a speech Thursday (January 7), adding that the negotiations were at "a critical stage".