On the Afghan front line, there are no good choices


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – At the start of the first round of fire, a police unit tested its heavy machine gun. The gunman pointed the cannon near the Taliban front line and fired into a Clap clap clap. It was guessable where the bullets landed.

The sun was sliding just behind the horizon and the call to prayer began to resonate in Kandahar City. The police unit, based on the edge of a neighborhood made up mostly of mud brick houses and low-slung shops, prepared for another long night.

It is at midnight, said the 29-year-old police commander, that “the real game begins”.

Since the start of the US withdrawal in May, the Taliban have captured more than half of the approximately 400 Afghan districts. And for the past month, Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, has come under siege by Taliban fighters in what could be the most important fight for the country’s future to date.

Security forces attempted to hold them back as other provincial capitals fell elsewhere, including Kunduz, the largest city captured by the Taliban. In the past four days alone, insurgents have taken over six capitals, ushering in a bloody new chapter in the war and further revealing how little government control the country has left without the support of the US military.

The insurgents are desperate to take over Kandahar, as the Taliban first established themselves in its neighboring neighborhoods in the 1990s before seizing the city itself and announcing their emirate. And the government is desperate to defend Kandahar, a symbol of state reach and an essential economic hub for trade to and from Pakistan through its checkpoints, bridges and highways.

On a warm evening earlier this month, Afghan and Taliban flags fluttered atop a nearby mountain, a Buddhist-turned-Islamic shrine carved into its flank – the clearest marker of Kandahar’s western front line.

East of the mountain, a mix of Afghan army, commandos and special police units were desperate to hold the town, despite being exhausted, malnourished and under-equipped.

Nearby, gunfire and the sound of explosions signal Raz Mohammed, 23, to begin his nighttime routine of moving his four children to the basement. He turns on an aging floor fan to try to dampen the noises of war long enough for them to get a few hours’ sleep.

The Rusty Device is a lukewarm defense against the infernally noisy firefight that has gone on night after night in Kandahar. The fighting is particularly fierce around Sarposa. There, the Taliban are entrenched, using people’s homes and all the land they can for cover.

At first, Mr. Mohammed’s sons and daughters screamed in terror every time the shooting started, but now the violence has become routine. Many of their neighbors have already fled to safer parts of the city. But so far, Mr. Mohammed has chosen to stay; his house has been in his family for 60 years.

And he has nowhere to go.

“If I leave, I will have to live on the streets,” said Mr. Mohammed, his sons around him, strolling in the shade of a store he owns.

But as each night breaks out with rocket fire and gunfire, he knows his family will be forced to leave if the bombardment draws near. They can spend a few nights at most in the already cramped house of their loved ones before finding themselves in one of the half-dozen refugee camps that have sprung up around the city, arid, devoid of enough food. water and food and oppressive heat.

It is the difficult choice for thousands of families in one of the most important metropolises in Afghanistan and also for many people spread over vast areas of the country. Although Kandahar is a city whose historical and strategic importance has made it a symbolic focal point for the military campaigns of the Taliban and the government.

“I just want this uncertainty to end,” said Mohammed, the day after another long battle a few hundred yards from his home.

Sulaiman Shah lived a few blocks from Mr. Mohammed, in a different neighborhood that was enveloped by the recent Taliban advance. Last month, the short and nervous 20-year-old made the decision Mr. Mohammed has so far resisted.

When the fighting got too close, he fled his home with his wife and months-old son, finding refuge in a refugee camp near the airport in eastern Kandahar, far from the front lines. Her family now live inside a tent made of a tarp and scarves tied together.

Every day, he lines up for water from a silver reservoir that is infrequently filled and nowhere near enough for the approximately 5,000 camp residents who have to endure temperatures that regularly exceed triple digits. .

This camp was hastily organized in what was previously the provincial office of the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs. Government officials said it had enough space after being closed during the coronavirus pandemic, with enough toilets for the influx of displaced people into the city and surrounding neighborhoods. For now, that means one toilet for 60 people.

No international aid has yet reached the city’s refugee camps. Volunteers, supported by a local parliamentarian, peel potatoes covered with flies which they cook and distribute later in the day. The grounds are an unorganized mess of homemade tents, families sprawling on the ground, and an empty government building that stinks of human excrement.

“If they want to help us, they should stop fighting in our neighborhood so that we can get home,” Shah said in a simple appeal to the government, standing next to the few things he managed to do. take with him.

Returning to Sarposa, Atta Mohammed, 63, a devoted and battered father of 12 who has so far chosen to stay at home, has attempted to end the war on his own terms, at least by negotiating with the forces. Afghan troops deployed directly behind. his home.

Trapped between government and Taliban lines on the outskirts of the neighborhood, Atta Mohammed, who has no connection to Raz Mohammed, made a simple request to the troops: Stop shooting.

“We don’t care who rules,” Atta Mohammed said from a shady alley next to his 46-year-old home. “I just wanna be on one side or the other.”

Atta Mohammed’s stores were destroyed shortly after the fighting began last month. And, like many in the neighborhood who have refused to leave, he fears that he or one of his children is a victim of the fighting, like many of the hundreds of civilians who have already been killed or injured, according to the United Nations. .

Just a week ago, a blast of indiscriminate fire in Sarposa hit a 10-year-old boy in the head.

The child, Hanif, was trying to help fix a pump in his yard when the stray bullet hit his temple. Now he was in intensive care at the nearby Mirwais Regional Hospital, blind and crying in pain. He was just one of a flood of people, young and old, who had walked through his doors in recent weeks due to indiscriminate fire. On average, the war meant that every day about five dead and 15 wounded passed through the doors of the hospital.

Hanif’s older brother, named Mohammed, sat next to him, trying to calm the agitated boy as he explained that his injured brother’s condition was not improving.

Doctors, Mohammed said, recommend his brother to seek treatment in Pakistan, an impossibility because they had little money. Their father’s car business had collapsed following the Taliban assault on the city, and they could not return home because it was too dangerous.

Hanif clawed at what he couldn’t see and rolled over on the bed screaming, his head wrapped in bandages: “I want to go home,” he kept saying over and over.

Her cries echoed in the hallway.

Taimoor Shah and Baryalai Rahimi contributed reporting.

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