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A Family Tragedy Captures Life On The Afghan Front Line

Muhammadullah doesn’t know how he will pick up the pieces to build a life again.
Muhammadullah doesn’t know how he will pick up the pieces to build a life again.

CHARBOLAK, Afghanistan -- The weeklong fighting in Charbolak, a rural district in Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh, has attracted little attention elsewhere.

As the Taliban and Afghan security forces spent the past week in pitched battles in Charbolak, the claims of casualties on both sides only attracted a passing mention in Afghan and international media.

But one family paid a heavy price for living on a dangerous Afghan front line.

Muhammadullah, 65, is badly wounded. Last week he lost two daughters, and two of his other four children were injured. He lost his house in the crossfire between government soldiers and Taliban insurgents in the once-sleepy village of Timorak.

Rival Afghan combatants often prefer to fight and launch attacks within populated areas, invariably killing and maiming civilians.

“The bang was sudden, and it knocked me out,” Muhammadullah said of the artillery shell strike that reduced his living room to rubble. “When I regained consciousness, I saw that the roof had caved in and there was blood everywhere.”

Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan in a crowded hospital in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, he said his family were trapped for hours until neighbors managed to dig them out the next day.

Two of his teenage daughters died that day, but he wasn’t able to attend their funerals as he was rushed to the hospital alongside his 7-year-old son, Hidayatullah, and 5-year-old daughter, Amena.

“One of my sons is in mental shock after the tragedy. The rest of my family is also devastated,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on January 15.

While Muhammadullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, survived the attack, he is paralyzed and might not walk again.

Elsewhere in the same hospital, his 35-year-old son, Qudratullah, is tending to Amena in the orthopedic ward. He blames the government forces for ruining their lives in an attack that was supposed to target alleged Taliban positions some 2 kilometers away.

“It was a massacre, but neither the provincial governor nor the police chief has even bothered to visit us,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Even the lawmakers representing us in the central parliament and the provincial legislature did not bother to share our grief.”

Fear pervades Charbolak following the fighting.

Last week, the Taliban began their offensive armed with laser weapons and night-vision goggles and attacked security posts in Timorak, which sits along a highway connecting Balkh to neighboring Jowzjan Province. Scores of soldiers, insurgents, and civilians have died in the fighting, which has also destroyed houses and livelihoods. The Taliban have also reportedly captured more than a dozen government soldiers.

However, it was not possible to independently verify rival claims of casualties and advances.

Muhammad Ali, a resident, says they are fed up with the Taliban and a predatory government militia masquerading as local police.

“We want the government to pay attention to our suffering. Why is it not able to end our misery and oppression?” he asked. “Why can’t they end insecurity and prevent the Taliban [from overrunning territories]?”

Residents say the Taliban now control most of Charbolak, where the government’s presence and control are confined to a few compounds in the district center.

Locals say the insurgents are now so emboldened that they set up makeshift checkpoints along the Balkh-Jowzjan highway to look for government workers and extort commercial vehicles.

“Charbolak is very dangerous for anyone connected to the government,” Muhammad Nabi, a government employee, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “It is increasingly difficult for government workers and civilians to even get around.”

In Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh police chief Muhammad Akram Sameh says the situation in Charbolak is improving and government forced have killed more than 30 insurgents.

But civilians in Charbolak are desperate. Dozens of families have already left for the relative safety of Mazar-e Sharif, some 40 kilometers to the east.

Back in his hospital bed, Muhammadullah doesn’t know how he will pick up the pieces to build a life again.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Mujibur Rahman Habibzai in Charbolak, Afghanistan.