Thousands fleeing Taliban surge in north Afghanistan

Kathy Gannon
Associated Press

Camp Istiqlal, Afghanistan — Sakina, who is 11, maybe 12, walked with her family for 10 days after the Taliban seized her village in northern Afghanistan and burned down the local school.

They are now among around 50 families living in a makeshift camp on a rocky patch of land on the edge of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. They roast in plastic tents under scorching heat that reaches 110 degrees at midday. There are no trees, and the only bathroom for the entire camp is a tattered tent pitched over a foul-smelling hole.

As the Taliban surge through northern Afghanistan — a traditional stronghold of U.S.-allied warlords and an area dominated by the country’s ethnic minorities — thousands of families like Sakina’s are fleeing their homes, fearful of living under the insurgents’ rule.

Internally displaced Afghans, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, fill water containers from a public water tap at a camp on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Thursday, July 8, 2021.

In the last 15 days, Taliban advances have driven more than 5,600 families from their homes, most of them in the northern reaches of the country, according to the government’s Refugee and Repatriations Ministry.

In Camp Istiqlal, family after family, all from the Hazara ethnic minority, told of Taliban commanders using heavy-handed tactics as they overran their towns and villages — raising doubts among many over their persistent promises amid negotiations that they will not repeat their harsh rule of the past.

Sakina said it was the middle of the night when her parents packed up their belongings and fled their village of Abdulgan in Balkh province, but not before the invading Taliban set fire to her school. Sakina said she doesn’t understand why her school was burned.

In Camp Istiqlal, there’s not a single light, and sometimes she hears noises in the pitch blackness of night. “I think maybe it’s the Taliban and they have come here. I am afraid,” said the girl, who hopes one day to be an engineer.

Yaqub Maradi fled his village of Sang Shanda, not far from Abdulgan, when the Taliban arrived. He said they tried to intimidate villagers into staying. Maradi’s brother and several members of his family were arrested, “held hostage to stop them from leaving,” he said.

“Maybe he is released today, but he cannot leave,” Maradi said from his small sweltering plastic tent pitched over a sunbaked mud floor, with mattresses folded in one corner.

A howling, brutally hot wind ripped through the tent as Mohammad Rahimi, the self-appointed camp leader, who also fled from Abdulgan, recalled how a poorly equipped militia force in his Zari district tried to defend against a larger Taliban force. Rahimi named a handful of militia fighters he said died defending their district.

In areas they control, the Taliban have imposed their own fees and taxes. Ashor Ali, a truck driver, told The Associated Press he pays the Taliban a 12,000 Afghani ($147) toll for every load of coal he brings from a Taliban-controlled part of neighboring Samangan province to Mazar-e-Sharif. That amounts to more than half of what he makes on each haul.

The Taliban are attending international conferences, even sending ex-ministers on missions to Afghanistan from Qatar, where they have a political office, to assure Afghans they have nothing to fear from them, especially minorities. The group still espouses Islamic rule but says its methods and tenets are less severe.

But if it’s a gentler face they are seeking to portray, fleeing residents say it seems many Taliban commanders in the field either haven’t gotten the message or aren’t listening.

A February 2020 agreement the Taliban signed with the United States reportedly prevents the insurgents from capturing provincial capitals. Yet two — Kandahar in the south and Badghis in the north — are under siege. In the capital of Kabul, where many fear an eventual Taliban assault, a rocket defense system has been installed, the Ministry of Interior said. The statement offered no detail about its origin or cost.

The Taliban blame the Afghan government for foiling efforts to jumpstart stalled talks that would elevate discussions to include leaders on both sides of the conflict.