It was Sunday, September 27, and I was planning a trip to the Afghan capital, Kabul, the following day. That evening, I went for a walk with my son, Hazheer, who recently turned 4. The streets were filled with joy and happiness as people were celebrating the Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Adha.
There was music everywhere, and girls and boys were visiting families and friends. I got an ice-cream and left the cheering crowds to head home. No one could possibly imagine that our city, Kunduz -- the largest urban center in northeastern Afghanistan -- would fall to the Taliban the very next day.
It was after midnight when I awoke to the sound of gunfire. Gunfights are a common enough affair in Kunduz, and I did not think this latest manifestation posed any real danger, so I went back to sleep.
I was awoken again, this time by a phone call at around 3 p.m. It was Zarghoon Mulzam, the editor-in-chief of Kunduz Magazine, who knew about my pending trip to Kabul. "Please stay home," he said. "The Taliban are in Kunduz."
Taliban Flag Flying Over Kunduz
On Monday morning, September 28, those who had fled the city center informed me that the Taliban flag was flying all over Kunduz.
Call after call confirmed that Afghan security forces had only made it to Bala Hesar, Bagh-e-Sherkat Base, and Kunduz Airport. From my window, I could see a lot of smoke from the buildings burned by the Taliban: the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the headquarters of the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate dof Security, and the houses of some mujahedin commanders.
It was terrifying – planes and helicopters were everywhere in the sky above us, and the sound of gunfire narrated the moment.
That evening, the battle intensified, and we had to stay home. Rumors began to circulate that the Taliban were on the verge of capturing Kunduz Airport, even though they never actually did.
Everybody was worried. Afghan security forces claimed that U.S. air support had killed Mullah Salaam, the Taliban's shadow governor in Kunduz, as well as two major Taliban commanders. People dared to hope that the Taliban would be defeated and normality soon restored.
The next day, Tuesday, September 29, the Taliban still seemed to have high morale despite the loss of their senior commanders as claimed by Afghan and American security forces. After 8.30 a.m., the Taliban rode on motorbikes to our village through the Zakheel neighborhood. Our village is in the vicinity of Padshah Qalandar and connected to Bagh-e-Sherkat. Bagh-e-Sherkat and Padshah Qalandar Shrine were the two bases the Taliban failed to capture.
When these army bases were informed of the Taliban presence in our village, they started to fire rockets, and we were caught in the crossfire once again. The majority of rockets fired hit congested residential houses and public places. People ran out of their burning homes not knowing where to go.
My family and I had to run for our lives. We got to a public road hoping to find a vehicle to get away. We waited for more than two hours in the shadow of rockets -- that was the longest wait of my life. I will never forget it. As we waited by the side of the road, Taliban fighters were headed in the opposite direction to join the battle. Three of our neighbors who had been injured by rockets joined us. No one knew where to go. All we could hear were gunshots from all sides: the airport and Bala Hesar, a strategic hill fort overlooking Kunduz.
I saw a rickshaw coming, and I asked him to take us to a safe place. He did not seem keen to be working but did not let me down, since he is from my village and took a risk. We all rode in it: me, my wife, my son, my brother, his wife, and his 6-month-old daughter. We did not know where was safe, so we went to the city.
We managed to get about 300 meters ahead when were stopped by a United Nations vehicle. Four people got out of the car and stood in front of us. Two of them were wearing white turbans. One had a mobile phone in his hand, and it looked like the other was a Taliban commander. All the men were armed and their faces were covered.
Taliban Riding In UN Vehicle
The UN jeep being driven by the Taliban blocked our way. We were held for a while but eventually, using sign language, we asked one of them to let us go through. They unblocked our way, and we rode on. When we got close to the city, we saw the Taliban flag flying near Zakheel High School and the house of Haji Omar, an adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
We arrived in the city at around midnight. It was empty except for some locals sitting with Taliban fighters on the moonlit sidewalks. As we passed the secondhand market, we noticed we were getting closer to the battle. A speeding Taliban vehicle overtook us. As we approached Al-Bayruni Hospital, bullets were flying over our heads.
Between A Rock And A Hard Place
We were about to enter the main Kunduz-Kabul road when we saw a government forces tank coming toward us, firing indiscriminately. Within seconds, two more tanks followed. Bullets were flying everywhere. The tanks were fleeing Bala Hesar after the Taliban attack. In the eyes of the demoralized Afghan forces, every standing object looked like the Taliban.
Eventually, we reached the relative safety of Khaja Mashhad, via Sayed Abad district. Cars full of displaced persons were heading toward neighboring Takhar Province.
We spent the next two days, Wednesday and Thursday (September 30 and October 1), at a friend's home in Khaja Mashhad. For the next 48 hours, we didn’t leave their house. Meanwhile, control of Kunduz swung back and forth between the government and the Taliban.
I learned from a call from my village on Friday that rockets had destroyed my house and those of two of my neighbors. The three houses were burned to the ground. We lost everything. The only viable option left to us seemed to be to head to Takhar.
Taliban Killing Spree
We went to the bus station, where there were only four cars. On the way, I bumped into a friend from Sayed Abad. He said that on Wednesday night the Taliban had killed a driver of the Provincial Transportation Department and his brother had gone out to recover the body. The Taliban killed him, too. His nephew went out to recover their bodies, and he was also shot dead by the Taliban.
The Taliban killed three more of his neighbors. The plight of many of our friends and colleagues had changed in a just matter of hours. A money changer from the market told me he went to open his shop only to find that his lock had been changed and he couldn’t get in.
The battle had scorched the city of basic necessities. Without food, electricity, water, or gas, we left Kunduz for Takhar.
On the way, we were stopped several times at Taliban checkpoints between Charkhab and Khanabad. According to some passengers, the Taliban checked the heartbeats of passengers to identify government employees and local police -- to find those who were scared.
Halfway through Khanabad, the sight of pro-government militias was a relief for everyone as it meant we were out of Taliban-controlled territory.
But there, the challenges of daily life returned, only on a bigger scale. Prices had soared in a few days. A 50 afghani (approximately $1) phone card now cost 60 afghani. Drivers complained about higher gas prices. A sack of flour, the Afghan staple food, jumped from 1,200 to 1,600 afghanis ($19 to 25). Gas prices leaped from 55 to as much as 80 afghanis. Banks remained closed.
After the defeat of the Taliban in Khaja Ghar district in Takhar Province, we heard that everyone was ready to fight the Taliban.
Fear Followed On Our Heels Into Badakhshan
We decided to go to Keshm in Badakhshan. When we arrived, we found the shockwaves of fear had followed us from Kunduz. It was rumored that Tagab district would soon fall to the Taliban, which would pave the way for the fall of Keshm, which the Taliban had already occupied in the past.
On Saturday morning, we were on the road again, this time from Keshm to Faizabad. On the way, our driver stopped several police vehicles and told them the Taliban were inspecting vehicles in Lie Aaba, an area 8 kilometers from Badakhshan Airport. They stopped there, but we kept going. Luckily, by the time we arrived in Lie Aaba, the Taliban had gone.
After the partial fall of Baharak district in Badakhshan Province, concerns started to grow in Faizabad too. The distance between Faizabad and Baharak is an hour’s drive. Baharak connects more than 10 districts in Badakhshan Province.
With the road blockade from Kunduz, prices went up in Faizabad, too. Some of the displaced stayed with their families and friends. Some rented hotel rooms, and some stayed at Maryam Kofi’s home. Kofi, a woman, represents Takhar in the Afghan Parliament. According to the spokesman for the governor of Badakhshan Province, more than 1,000 displaced families from Kunduz are now taking shelter in Badakhshan. But they have received little government aid.
There are more than 3,000 displaced families in Takhar. Some have been placed in the Spin Zar area by the government. Some have fled to other neighboring provinces such as Baghlan or Balkh. Some even fled to Kabul. Their overall number is still not known.
Some of the displaced left behind everything except for the clothes on their backs. Most of them will be safe from the war, for now, but the struggle to survive continues, especially with winter approaching.
Noor ul-Ayn is a freelance journalist based in Kunduz.