NAD-E ALI, Afghanistan -- Muhammad Lala, a white-bearded Pashtun patriarch, is not happy upon returning to his house after more than a year.
Lala, a farmer, left his humble mud home in great haste in September last year. As the Taliban advanced across Nad-e Ali, an agricultural district, Lala joined thousands of civilians seeking shelter in neighboring Lashkar Gah, capital of Afghanistan’s restive southern Helmand Province.
“I returned to a completely empty house. We had everything, but now you can see: Nothing is left,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan as he walked around the empty rooms. “I am too old to work now. How can we get our belongings back?”
By local standards, Lala is lucky because his house is still largely intact. In another part of Nad-e Ali, dozens of houses lie in ruins. They once served as front-line Taliban trenches and consequently attracted government artillery fire and air strikes by international forces supporting the Afghan Army.
“We don’t have a single room left out of 15. Our parameter walls and well have been destroyed. How can we live here?” asked a young male resident who refused to give his name because he feared the insurgents. “The government needs to help us, but first they must send deminers so at least we don’t fell victim to the unexploded bombs.”
He and Lala are among tens of thousands of civilians returning to ruined houses and devastated livelihoods in Nad-e Ali. With the aid of U.S. forces and airpower, Afghan forces are slowly reclaiming lost territories in Helmand.
Following the withdrawal of most NATO troops in late 2014, the Taliban overran most of Helmand’s 15 rural districts and virtually surrounded Lashkar Gah, a city of 20,000 residents.
Police Colonel Qais Nizami told Radio Free Afghanistan that demining civilian houses and the paths they are likely to frequent are their first priority.
“We are trying our best to help civilians and, as you can see, it prompts them to cooperate with the authorities,” he said.
In a visit earlier this week, Radio Free Afghanistan witnessed combat after Afghan forces retook Nad-e Ali’s Treekh Nawar region.
With the white Taliban flag still flying on electricity poles, U.S. Apache helicopters could be heard targeting Taliban positions in the distance. Afghan Army Brigadier-General Asabuddin Drasteewal said they have an upper hand.
“The enemy is on the run and has endured heavy casualties,” he said. “Only three of our soldiers endured light injuries. We have reopened the main road.”
Bahadur, an Afghan police deminer who goes by one name only, said he has mostly used his bare hands and a shovel to defuse more than 100 bombs and the local insurgent’s favorite improvised explosive devices.
“I hope the government will consider giving us some equipment. It’s not enough to just pay salaries,” he said.
Local police commander Abdul Qadir said the operation to cleanse Nad-e Ali -- which abuts Lashkar Gah’s third district -- will continue until the insurgents are pushed back to more peripheral areas.
“It was very important for us to win back control of Nad-e Ali because it is a gateway to Lashkar Gah,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
The Taliban are already vowing a comeback. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, said their fighters are putting up stiff resistance.
Reclaiming lost territories from the Taliban seems to be the easier part. Restoring stability, livelihoods, and lasting peace, however, will inevitably win popular backing for Kabul from a populace that has suffered enormously through nearly 40 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Nad-e Ali, Afghanistan.