CHAH-E ANJIR, Afghanistan -- Residents in a remote village in southern Afghanistan are trying to pitch a tent far from the school that has been caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and government forces since the summer.
The sounds of small and heavy weapon fire ring out in the distance as residents hammer the heavy iron poles into the ground. Everyone hopes that children will be able to return to this makeshift classroom, but teachers at the school in Chah-e Anjir, a small agricultural village in the Afghan province of Helmand, aren't sure whether parents will send their children back there once the tent is ready.
Chah-e Anjir was once a thriving village with a school attended by more than 2,000 students and a vital local health clinic. Just one police post was enough to keep the peace. Now, however, it is among the hundreds of villages terrorized by an unprecedented Taliban offensive that began in April and seems to be aimed at capturing territory in rural provinces such as Helmand.
Fighting has crippled life in the village, home to thousands of farmers and small traders, for months. Scores have been killed while hundreds of families have fled, seeking relative safety in cities across Afghanistan.
Abdul Baseer runs a tire shop on the road that connects Chah-e Anjir to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. He is getting ready to close his shop early to avoid being caught in the gun battles and artillery fire that unfold almost daily after sunset.
He says he's sick of government troops responding to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate fire in all directions. Government forces could reclaim lost territory by pushing the Taliban out of Chah-e Anjir if they fight tactfully, Baseer says.
"Every Afghan army and police commander can easily protect his post, but often just two or three insurgent fighters have more than 50 government soldiers pinned down," he said.
Baseer is lucky to have survived this long. Half of the village bazaar's shops are now out of business. Farmers, too, have found themselves at a loss in Chah-e Anjir and the surrounding Nad Ali district, which has some of the province's most fertile land. Fighting has disrupted sowing, irrigation, and harvests.
Asadullah, a Chah-e Anjir resident who goes by one name only, says the sound of weapon fire every night makes him think the village is the scene of continuous fighting. He has seen many of his neighbors flee to the relative safety of Lashkar Gah, while the number of customers at his small grocery store has plummeted sharply.
"We are deeply worried. We have already moved many times within the village," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We don't trust this government to hold the frontline that runs so close to the village. The forces typically leave their posts and government buildings once the Taliban shoot a few rounds at them."
Mazamil Shakari, another resident, says the constant fighting has drained all the joy from the residents' lives. He says he, too, believes government forces are capable of pushing the Taliban out of the village but that a few more months of fighting will completely ruin their already strained livelihoods.
"In response to a single shot by the Taliban, government soldiers typically answer with long bursts of machinegun fire, rockets, or mortar rounds, but that doesn't often translate into a coherent strategy to push the insurgents out," he said.
Najib, an Afghan Army officer stationed in Chah-e Anjir, says the insurgents have established well-dug positions across the village that they frequently use to target government forces.
"They are everywhere. They are divided into small groups of four of five fighters who take turns firing at our positions all night," he said. "Sometimes they do the same during the daytime. They often use civilian homes to engage us."
Chah-e Anjir's abandoned cricket ground and the nearby plain that served as the weekly cattle market are now mere dustbowls.
War has taken away a lot from the distraught village residents.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Chah-e Anjir, Helmand.