Like hundreds of families in Ghor Province who once survived on payments from Afghanistan’s former government, 14-year-old Ahmad Zia and his relatives have been devastated by the Taliban’s seizure of power.
The men in Ahmad Zia’s extended family were members of an ethnic-Tajik Popular Uprising Force that fought the Taliban for years near their village of Qats on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Firuzkoh.
The Taliban retaliated against them in 2019, killing Ahmad Zia’s father and his three uncles while they were working on a nearby farm.
Then-12-year-old Ahmad Zia became the eldest male member of his extended family, forcing him to earn an income for his widowed mother, aunts, and their 24 children.
Ahmad Zia worked for nearly two years as a water bearer for Afghan security forces who were stationed at strategic positions in the remote mountains overlooking their village.
He earned about $60 a month filling plastic water jugs from a creek near his home and strapping them onto the backs of three donkeys.
He would then trek four kilometers up into the mountains -- sometimes in sub-zero temperatures and often within range of fighting -- to supply the Afghan Army outposts.
He also helped his mother, Bibi Asma, wash soldiers' clothes that he brought back down from the mountains.
This meager income was supplemented by payments from the former Afghan government’s Martyrs and Disabled Ministry.
Now, all of the paltry sources of income for Ahmad Zia and his family are gone.
There is no work for Ahmad Zia. Payments from the ministry stopped when the government in Kabul collapsed on August 15.
The local Taliban authorities will not let Ahmad Zia’s mother or aunts work, either, refusing to even allow women in Ghor to work in their fields alongside male relatives as they have done for years.
Women in Ahmad Zia’s district are not allowed to leave their homes without being accompanied by an adult male relative as a chaperon.
“Our situation is very bad. We have no money,” Ahmad Zia tells RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “I was the only breadwinner in the house. I was earning money for 30 people by myself.”
“I don’t know what I will do now,” he says. “I wanted to go to Iran to work and to support my family. But the border with Iran is closed now.”
“We have asked the Taliban to help us,” Ahmad Zia says. “But my only hope is in God.”
Ahmad Zia’s family is not alone. Millions of Afghans are struggling to survive amid a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis. The United Nations has warned that many Afghans face the risk of starvation.
Doubtful Taliban Promises
Maulvi Shams Ullah Tariqat, Ghor’s Taliban-appointed deputy governor, claims the Taliban is planning to disperse humanitarian aid to the families of war victims.
But the financial holdings of the Afghan government at banks in other countries -- which total more than $9 billion -- have been frozen since August when the Taliban seized power.
The Taliban leadership in Kabul says that if those funds are not released to them soon, a humanitarian catastrophe will unleash a new wave of Afghan refugees westward.
However, Western governments say they will not release those assets to the Taliban unless it proves it has changed since its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, when it was an international pariah notorious for massacring ethnic minorities, including ethnic Tajiks and Hazara.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network describes Ghor as a multi-ethnic and multi-tribal society that is fragmented by acute rivalries, extreme poverty, and a proliferation of weapons.
Residents of the predominantly ethnic-Tajik districts around Ghor’s provincial capital say they doubt they will receive aid from the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, even if the Taliban-led government had the funds.
They note that the Taliban has failed to keep its promises not to retaliate against Afghans who worked for the former Afghan government -- continuing to persecute people in Ghor and other parts of the country.
Hussain Hakimi, a civil activist from Ghor, says the Taliban is now seeking vengeance against ethnic Tajiks and Hazara who had fought against them.
He says that despite a general amnesty announced by the Taliban leadership in Kabul, Taliban forces act arbitrarily in Ghor and follow the command of their own local leaders.
Hakimi says the Taliban’s declaration of amnesty is a ruse aimed at deceiving the Afghan people and the international community.
Human Rights Watch says the Taliban has continued to target and kill people who worked for the former Afghan government or actively supported its security forces.
Abdul Samad Amiri, the acting head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) office in Ghor, was abducted and shot dead in September while traveling on the Kabul-Ghor highway. The AIHRC blames Amiri’s kidnapping and murder on Taliban gunmen.
Retribution attacks have also targeted former members of various local Popular Uprising Forces -- a rag-tag mix of volunteer militia fighters who were not part of the former government’s military but fought against the Taliban with whatever weapons they could muster.
Ghor Province was one of the first places where uprising forces emerged about a decade ago.
On October 14, the Taliban reportedly killed a former Afghan lawmaker from Ghor, Ahmad Khan, who led Popular Uprising Forces in his home district of Dawlat-Yar.
According to more recent reports, residents in the Maidan Bazarek area in the central part of Ghor say Taliban gunmen have been going house to house in two villages -- Qandsang and Shurak -- to demand “blood money” from relatives of those who had fought against the Taliban.
Those developments have dimmed the waning hopes of Ahmad Zia’s family.
“The [previous] government used to help us, but now that government has fallen,” Bibi Asam, Ahmad Zia’s mother, tells RFE/RL. “Now we are waiting to see what this new [Taliban-led] government will do, whether it will help or not.”
“We are four families,” Bibi Asam says. “Which of us should this boy [Ahmad Zia] take care of first? Should he focus on getting firewood, shoes [for the children], or other things like food?”