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Afghans Driven By Taliban Offensive To Northern Haven

Afghan children pose for a photograph near their temporary shelter in Mazar-e Sharif, April 24, 2015
Afghan children pose for a photograph near their temporary shelter in Mazar-e Sharif, April 24, 2015

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Homayra clings to the maimed body of her 8-year-old son. She gazes helplessly at the limp boy in her arms, contemplating the misery in which they find themselves.

"He can't move, but I can't do anything," the 27-year-old widow laments at a makeshift refugee camp outside Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province.

"I've spent all my money on medicine for him, but now I've run out," she adds in a parched voice, waving X-ray images of her paralyzed boy, Omar, from his infancy, when the family had access to medical care.

Homayra and Omar are among the tens of thousands of war-scarred Afghans who have fled their homes in northern Afghanistan amid a fierce offensive by the fundamentalist Taliban, who remain at war with central authorities a full 13 years after the U.S.-led coalition chased them from power.

Many, like Homayra, have sought refuge in Balkh Province, the last oasis of relative peace in the region.

Soaring Numbers Of Refugees

Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful former warlord, has run Balkh with an iron fist for the past 12 years, making the province one of the most stable and prosperous in the country.

Given its strategic location, Balkh's stability has also been a key focus of NATO forces.

Large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain unregistered with local authorities, but migration officials estimate the figure in Balkh to be as high as 20,000.

More than 300 families in the past several months have made this dusty patch of land outside of Mazar-e Sharif their temporary home.

Homayra and her family fled their home in Faryab Province, in the country's northwest near the border with Turkmenistan, one month ago. Her husband was killed by a stray bullet during fighting in her hometown between Taliban gunmen and Afghan government forces.

In Pictures: The Refugees Of Mazar-e Sharif

"His father was killed haplessly," says Homayra, who is draped in a long white scarf. "A lot of people have been killed in our area. Many homes have been destroyed by the fighting."

She lives in the displaced-persons camp with her mother-in-law, Faizia, a 60-year-old woman covered in a blue cloak.

"My grandson and husband were killed by the Taliban," says Faizia, who is blind in one eye from a shrapnel wound. "We are homeless. We don't have shelter or food to eat. All we have are these tents we put up."

Desperate Conditions

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Provincial Department of Repatriation and Refugees (DoRR) have begun distributing packages of humanitarian aid to several hundred families in Balkh.

The camp's residents say the provincial government has allocated land for their temporary shelter as well as provided sacks of wheat every few months.

But many of the IDPs, who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, complain that local authorities and international aid organizations should do more.

The camp's residents must walk for an hour to collect water from a well in a nearby village. Some work in nearby kilns, making line after line of clay bricks from dusk to dawn. Others work on farms in the area, picking fruit in the scorching sun. Many, however, beg on the dusty streets of Mazar-e Sharif to eke out a living.

Mohammad Asef, a bearded, middle-aged man, says he fled Sar-e Pol Province to the east two months ago, after a rocket landed on his house, instantly killing his wife and child.

Unable to work because of his own wounds, Asef says he and the rest of the camp's inhabitants won't survive long without additional assistance.

"We don't have water or electricity," Asef says. "The only shelter is these tents that you see. We want to build homes so we're not exposed to the elements."

For many of the displaced Afghans, desperate living conditions are the price they have had to pay for life in the relative safety of Balkh. But the violence has followed some migrants to their adopted homes.

"I'm so scared that I can't sleep. I fled because they would have killed me," says Mohammad Yusuf, a former soldier from Kunduz Province, one of the harder-hit provinces to the northeast. "[But] to seek revenge, the Taliban even come here."

He cites an example freshly etched in his mind, of another former soldier from Kunduz whose family was gunned down in the makeshift camp by masked gunmen. "It was here that they killed his wife and two of his brothers this week," he says.

Violence Spreading

Taliban fighters conducted a major spring offensive in northern Afghanistan, which had been relatively stable compared with the explosive south and east of the country. But now, battles are raging across the region, with Afghan national forces struggling to fend off militants who have overrun districts and killed scores of government troops.

INFOGRAPHIC: Afghanistan's New Northern Flash Points

Even Balkh has not been shielded from the soaring violence.

In several districts, the Taliban is waging war with Afghan soldiers and pro-government militias, prompting residents to flee to Mazar-e Sharif and its surrounding areas.

"So many of our people were killed and taken," says Agha Jan, an elderly farmer from Chimtal district who moved to the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif three months ago. "We had to leave our area. Eighteen people were killed by the Taliban in our village alone."

Jan says they were not only being targeted by militants but were also being preyed upon by pro-government militias deployed to fight the Taliban in far-flung parts of Balkh.

"During the day, the Taliban would beat us up and ransack our homes," he says. "During the night, it was the militias' turn."

Afghan national authorities are struggling to wrest momentum from the Taliban and other armed antigovernment forces 13 years after a UN-backed plan was put in place to succeed the Taliban.

Those "enemies of Afghanistan," in the words of Kabul authorities, continue their deadly strikes aimed at civilian and military targets, including a daylight attack on the parliament building that killed six people.

The Afghan security and police forces are still undermanned, and their job was made even more pressing by the withdrawal of U.S. and other international combat forces by the end of last year.

Abdul Hamid, a stocky shepherd from Chahar Bolak district who's now in Balkh, left his family behind after he became a marked man by the Taliban.

"I can't go back to my village," he says. "I still have family there, but it's too dangerous to go."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.