Shamalgah was once a bustling agricultural village that housed hundreds of residents of the Bala Bulk district of Afghanistan's western Farah Province. But their pastoral existence was shattered when fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army placed the community squarely in the line of fire.
The fighting ended as Afghan security forces fell to the Taliban advance on the capital, but the legacy of war is evident in Shamalgah and other villages of Bala Bulk.
Most of Shamalgah's fruit orchards and mud-brick houses lie in ruins, leaving many residents homeless and their livelihoods at risk. And with the country facing a major humanitarian crisis and economic meltdown six months into the Taliban's rule, there is little hope of rebuilding what was anytime soon.
Mohammad Ismail, like others in Shamalgah, says their properties were either razed or destroyed by shelling as the forces of the previous government tried to deny cover to Taliban forces.
"The [former Afghan] government destroyed my house because they claimed the Taliban shot at their forces from it," says Mohammad Ismail, a middle-aged resident of Shamalgah.
Ismail says many residents they were forced to flee their homes a few days before Eid al-Fitr, which marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in May.
"I now live at someone else's house," he told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Rebuilding the house will cost up to 400,000 afghanis ($4,000)," he added. "I am penniless and do not have that kind of money."
Sayed Daud, another Shamalgah resident, says his extended family's two homes were flattened during the fighting last year.
"Houses across this region lie in ruins," he said. "We have no means to reconstruct, which would cost at least 600,000 afghanis ($6,000) each."
Bala Buluk lies some 50 kilometers west of the provincial capital, Farah. Home to 80,000 residents, the rural region is still reeling from the aftermath of years of firefights, suicide bombings, night raids, airstrikes, and ambushes between the Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters. The Afghan troops mostly hunkered down in trenches and posts ringed by sandbags, while the lightly armed Taliban attacked them in hit-and-run ambushes.
Shamalgah is one of the nearly half a dozen villages ruined by fighting in Bala Buluk. Tens of thousands of the district's residents are among more than 3.5 million Afghans displaced inside their country by fighting and drought. The majority of Bala Buluk residents were displaced in the months leading up to the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15; more than half a million Afghans were displaced by fighting in rural regions in early 2021 alone.
The prospects of receiving help or compensation for the damages incurred by the fighting are dim. More than 23 million Afghans face starvation, and trade, foreign aid, and investment are at a standstill. With the focus now on Afghanistan's unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis, there is little chance that funds will be diverted for reconstruction.
"We lost two houses and a fruit orchard," Abdul Karim, a young farmer in Shamalgah, told Radio Azadi. He says the properties were everything they had. "No one has done anything to help us yet."
He says the warring sides did not care about residents' welfare. "The government forces built a post inside our orchard, and they demolished our houses after coming under fire," he said.
The Taliban and members of the fallen government, meanwhile, blame each other for ruining the lives and livelihoods of so many citizens.
"The real culprits of this war were those fighters who were using civilian houses as cover for attacking the security forces," one former Afghan Army officer told Radio Azadi.
The Taliban, in turn, denies tormenting civilians and accuses Afghan and foreign forces of targeting civilians or destroying their properties in operations against the Taliban.
In Bala Buluk, residents have yet to gain any reassurances.
"Most people here are not able to build a single room, let alone reconstruct entire houses," Karim said. "No one has shown any concern about our ordeal."
Adam Khan, an elderly local resident, says that rising inflation prompted by a rapid economic collapse squeezes locals hard.
"Without help, we will not be able to rebuild anything," he told Radio Azadi.
Qari Abdul Baseer heads the Taliban-led government's provincial disaster management authority. He told Radio Azadi that his office had received nearly 6,000 applications from Bala Buluk residents, and all have asked for help in rebuilding their homes.
"We have shared their pleas with the ministry [in Kabul]. We will act on whatever decisions they make," he said.
It is not clear where the Taliban-led government would find the money. Its nearly six-month-old government is not recognized by any country, and U.S. and UN sanctions on Taliban leaders have prompted donors to suspend all aid to the militants' government. Aid agencies are employing creative means to bypass the Taliban authorities while attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance directly to vulnerable Afghans.
In Bala Buluk and elsewhere, war-weary and starving Afghans are desperate.
"It is high time for everyone to extend a helping hand to us," said Ismail as he stood amid the ruins of his house.