KOT, Afghanistan -- As heavy gunfire and artillery shelling ring out in the mountains, the residents of a remote region in eastern Afghanistan fled their homes in haste.
Most adults were observing the dawn-till-dusk Ramadan fasts as they left their mud houses on foot or in tractors. They are among the hundreds of residents of Kot district of Nangarhar Province -- along Afghanistan’s eastern volatile border with Pakistan. All trying to escape the much-feared militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Everyone on the move in the scorching heat spoke of great suffering at the hands of the ultra-radical fighters. “They began stabbing our children to terrorize us,” said Mohammad Din, a young farmer while fleeing his village, Said Ahmad Khel in Kot, on May 26. “They prevented us from taking our belongings and even burned some homes.”
Another Kot resident, who refused to give his name, said IS militants beat him and that he barely survived by running away.
“They tortured me, stepped on me when I fell to the ground and then hit me with the butts of their machine guns,” he said. “They confiscated all our belongings, and I barely escaped with my life.”
The ongoing fighting in Kot marks the return of IS to Nangarhar, where it was thought to have been defeated after a yearlong campaign. The hard-line militants swiftly overran large swaths of rural Nangarhar. By August last year, they were in charge of Kot and five neighboring mountainous districts bordering Pakistan.
Their atrocities, however, provoked a local tribal rebellion that helped government troops reclaim lost territory. The IS stranglehold in Nangarhar crumbled this spring after the Taliban, the Afghan Army, NATO troops, and a host of regional countries contributed to their defeat in what appeared to be uncoordinated efforts aimed at denying IS an Afghan foothold.
The hard-line militants now seem to be have made a limited comeback in Nangarhar by attacking Afghan forces in Kot late last week and swiftly overrunning parts of the rural region.
Nuroz, a middle-aged man, also fled his village, Lagharjoo, on May 26. He blamed Pakistan for his suffering. “Most of these [IS] militants are Punjabis from Pakistan who are now fighting against us,” he said.
Jandad, a farmer, hastily loaded everything he could on to his tractor and left his home amid an Afghan Army counteroffensive against IS.
“We fled because the [artillery] shells and [machine-gun] bullets were hitting our homes,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Daesh (eds: an Arabic language term for IS) was committing unspeakable atrocities against us. It was impossible to leave our women and children behind in the areas they controlled.”
Afghan officials say scores of civilians, at least a dozen Afghan security forces, and more than 100 IS fighters have been killed in the fighting in Kot since it broke out on June 23.
Zar Mohammad Tarakhel, a local police official, said the IS use of civilian mud houses as hideouts and trenches has complicated their efforts to clear the region.
For Kot’s civilians, this means more weeks and months of displacement and misery.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Shah Mahmood Shinwari's reporting from Kot, Afghanistan.