ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Every day brings a new challenge of survival for Saima, an Afghan widow in her 30s.
She struggles to keep her four children warm and fed in the bitter cold that has descended in eastern Afghanistan, where winter snows now blanket the mountains for weeks.
Her dilapidated mud house in an impoverished neighborhood of Asababad, the capital of Kunar Province, provides little protection against the subzero temperatures. As her teenage son looks for some firewood in the nearby forest, her three other children huddle on a floormat inside the darkened room as their teeth rattle from the cold.
“When my husband was alive, we had everything, but we don’t have anything now,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “My son sells some of the woods he collects, and that is our only means of buying some food.”
Like many Afghans, Saima goes by one name only. She says her world came crumbling down when her husband, a Taliban fighter, was killed in a clash with international troops in a rural district a decade ago.
“The only food we have right now is a few kilograms of maize flour,” she said as she stared into the mud and clay hearth where they light a fire whenever they have something to cook.
Paighamullah, her 11-year-old son, says their misery reminds him of his father’s absence every day.
“I can’t remember him because I was too young when he was killed,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But I miss him every day. It saddens me to realize I don’t have a father whenever I see happy children with their fathers.”
His father, whose name the family doesn’t want to reveal, is among the tens of thousands of combatants killed in the past 19 years. Taliban fighters, Afghan government soldiers, and civilians make up the vast majority of the country’s casualties since the demise of the Taliban regime following a U.S.-led military attack in late 2001. More than 4,000 international troops have also been killed in the war.
For the families on either side of the battlefield, life after losing their loved ones has more similarities than differences. About a kilometer from Saima’s house in Asadabad lives Reza Gul, a grandmother who mourns her son’s loss.
Gul says the grief is unending. Her 25-year-old son, Abdul Jalal, was killed while fighting for the Afghan National Army in the volatile southern province of Helmand. She recalls the day when Jalal’s body was brought in from the frontline five years ago.
“He was snatched back from us too early,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “At that point, he had been married only for 11 months.”
Salima, Jalal’s 4-year-old daughter, was born months after her father’s killing.
“I just want Allah to bring peace to Afghanistan through a reconciliation among Afghans,” Gul said of her hopes – a sentiment that Saima shares.
“We just want peace -- peace for everyone in the world,” Saima said.
Across Afghanistan, the division within society is also reflected at the cemeteries. In many villages, the Taliban’s white banner and the red, green, and black national flag indicate for which side the fallen had fought.
In the remote province of Uruzgan, Faizullah, 18, mourns the loss of three brothers. While two of them served in the Afghan police, one had joined the Taliban. All three were killed in clashes two years ago.
Faizullah now looks after his parents, the widows of his two married brothers, and their eight children. “We repeatedly pleaded with them and urged them to abandon the competing sides,” he said while pointing to his brothers’ mud grave at the Graveyard of Martyrs near Uruzgan’s provincial capital, Tarin Kot.
“When they were alive, I was very happy and confident that they would look after us and provide for our families,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I have nothing now, just unending heartache.”
Like Saima and Gul, Faizullah hopes the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban will soon result in establishing peace.
But the peace talks are fraught with challenges. A recent breakthrough only saw the Taliban and the Afghan government negotiators agree on the ground rules and procedures after three months of haggling. Both sides are now taking a break for consultations.
The two sides, however, are far from declaring a cease-fire. While the Afghan government has been calling for an armistice for months, the Taliban is resisting the cessation of hostilities.
Across Afghanistan, both sides are engaged in increasingly bloody fighting. On December 16, 13 Afghan police officers were killed in an attack at a checkpoint in the northern province of Baghlan.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Rohullah Anwari and Sharifullah Sharafat.