FAIZABAD, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan’s vast and remote northern province of Badakhshan -- which straddles the borders with Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan -- was once a bastion of resistance to the Taliban and never conquered by the extremist Islamist group during its five years in power.
From its bases in Badakhshan and the neighboring Panjshir and Takhar provinces, the Northern Alliance resisted the brutal rule of the Taliban, which had captured around 90 percent of Afghanistan by 2001.
But 20 years later, Badakhshan is on the verge of falling completely to the militant group, which has seized large swaths of the northern countryside as foreign forces depart the country.
During a blistering offensive in recent weeks, the Taliban is reported to have seized control of 26 of Badakhshan’s 28 districts and encircled the provincial capital, Faizabad.
Fear and panic are rife in the city. Flights to and from it have been suspended and business has ground to a halt. The government in Kabul has responded by deploying hundreds of Afghan special forces and pro-government militiamen to reinforce the city of some 30,000 people.
“The situation is very worrying,” says Fereshtah Hamraz, a 34-year-old female resident of Faizabad. “The Taliban has reached the gates of the city. The airport is under threat and we cannot leave by air or land.”
Murid Azimi, who owns a retail store in the city, says the uncertainty is sinking business. "Insecurity has increased a lot,” he says. “People are not buying anything and businesses are suffering.”
The militants have overrun about one-third of the country’s approximately 400 districts since the start of the international military withdrawal on May 1.
The Taliban’s gains on the battlefield have fueled fears that it could topple the internationally recognized government and overrun the country's much-maligned security forces, which will lose crucial U.S. air support once all foreign troops depart by August 31.
Fear Of Repressive Laws
Women fear that the Taliban will reimpose in Faizabad many of the repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its 1996-2001 rule.
The Taliban severely curtailed girls’ education during its rule. It also forced women to cover themselves from head to toe, banned them from working outside the home, and required them to be accompanied by a male relative when they left their homes.
“As a woman, I’m afraid of losing the freedoms and rights that we have secured in the past 20 years,” says Asefa Karimi, a civil activist in Faizabad. “If the Taliban takes over Faizabad I will not be able to work or study.”
Karimi says the militants have reimposed many of their restrictions on women in districts they now control in Badakhshan.
“I also fear that they might kill me,” she adds. “I’m a public figure. I have been interviewed and shown on television. If I’m a target, my family is in danger, too.”
In the past year, the Taliban has killed scores of activists, journalists, and public figures, including dozens of women, in a campaign of targeted killings and assassinations.
Rights groups say the killings are intended to silence and intimidate independent voices and civil society in Afghanistan, which has made inroads on women’s rights and free speech since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime.
The Taliban’s relentless march through Badakhshan has displaced thousands of people.
More than 2,000 Afghan civilians and security personnel have fled to Tajikistan as of July 9, where there are fears of an impending major influx of refugees.
Several thousand families from districts across the province have also sought refuge in Faizabad. Some live in crammed houses with other families. Others live in the open, including in public parks, as local authorities struggle to provide them with food and shelter.
“We had to leave all of our clothes and belongings in our village,” says Begum, a 46-year-old mother of six who escaped the Yaftali Sufla district about 10 days ago after it was overrun by the Taliban.
“We now live in a rented house with four other families,” she says. “The government hasn’t helped us at all so far.”
Abdul Wahid Taibi, the head of the provincial department for refugees and returnees, said local authorities had documented the arrival of over 2,000 families to Faizabad in the past two weeks.
But he said aid packages including clothes, food, and basic cooking utensils had been distributed to only a fraction of them.
“We received two loaves of bread yesterday,” says Masoumah, a woman from the Yaftali Sufla district who lives in a dilapidated house with four other family members in Faizabad. “But we are five people. What can I give them to eat? We have no food.”
This story was written in Prague based on reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for security reasons.