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Taliban's 'Human Shield' Tactic Ruins Livelihoods

Afghan security personnel stand guard in Chardara district of Kunduz province in June.
Afghan security personnel stand guard in Chardara district of Kunduz province in June.

Two children and an elderly woman named Zarina sit under the shadow of a shawl. They are fanning themselves to beat the 48 degree Celsius summertime heat in northern Afghanistan.

The family fled to Kunduz city, the capital of the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In recent days, intense fighting has engulfed their village, Dubandi, in the Chardara district.

A lack of government and international assistance has forced them to live in the Duri Sar desert on the city's outskirts.

"The Taliban dragged us out of our house," Zarina says, recalling how they were forced to abandon their mud home. "They came in the middle of the night and told us to get out. May God destroy them."

In many villages across Kunduz, the Taliban awakes civilians in the middle of the night and evicts them from their houses by force. The insurgents then barricade themselves inside.

This is a favorite insurgent tactic to hide from government forces who generally refrain from firing on civilians. This way, the Taliban and their Central Asian militant allies often use villagers as human shields.

Ehsanullah is among the province's estimated 200,000 displaced civilians. The 36-year-old remains determined to return to his burned-out home. "I didn't enjoy my life and may die tomorrow [because of depression]," he says.

Ehsanullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, recently build a house for his younger brother Asad. He says their family spent 700,000 Afghanis (nearly $12,000) to build a house for Asad and his future bride.

With the house now in the hands of the Taliban, Asad's marriage prospects are minimal, and the family faces a financial catastrophe if their house is burned or damaged.

Saifur Rahman, from the village of Halqa Kol in the Chardara district, fled his poultry farm after the Taliban took over the village. Most roads have been blocked because of the fighting, so families travel downstream in makeshift boats.

"I took out the children in the middle of the night, and we went by boat to the other side of the river. My family almost drowned [during the perilous journey]," Rahman says.

The Taliban ate half his chickens, he adds, and when local police forces took over the village, they ate the other half.

"My farm was looted by both sides, and my losses exceed 200,000 Afghanis ($3,000)."

Another village caught in the crosshairs is Sarake Bala, where Afghan forces distributed pamphlets instructing residents to flee. Later, pro-government troops used their abandoned homes as barricades.

One of the soldiers, Sharafuddin from neighboring Badakhshan Province, says the troops holed up in houses were sometime only 200 meters from the enemy.

Sharafuddin, who has been fighting away from home for three months, says he is reluctant to fire on Taliban strongholds from civilian homes.

"I miss my own house," he says. "If someone opened fire on my house and destroyed it, it would bring me much misery."

Aid groups estimate the fighting in Kunduz, which first began in April, has displaced some 20,000 families.

Kunduz Governor Mohammad Omar Safi recently told journalists that authorities expect thousands more families to be displaced in future military operations. He says the government has invited aid agencies to assist afflicted civilians.

While many of the refugees have found shelter with relatives or in rented houses, thousands have lost both their homes and livelihoods.

Kunduz Refugee Affairs department head Abdul Salam Hashimi warned about the potential spread of disease among displaced homeless civilians.

He says that despite the appalling conditions, only some 2,000 families have received assistance from the government and aid agencies.