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‘Weak From Hunger’: Taliban’s Sweeping Offensive Pushes Afghanistan Toward Humanitarian Crisis

Tens of thousands of Kunduz residents have been uprooted by the fighting, with hundreds seeking shelter in a field on the outskirts of Kunduz city. Some families have to sleep out in the open without a tent.

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Safia and her three young children live out in the open, exposed to the punishing summer heat, with no food or water.

She fled her home in Afghanistan’s northern city of Kunduz after it was struck last week by mortars, which killed her husband, the family’s sole breadwinner.

“We have no food or shelter,” says Safia, who is among hundreds of others camped out in a field on the outskirts of the city, which is home to nearly 400,000 people. “My children are sunburned and sick. The government hasn’t helped us.”

More than 35,000 people -- according to the United Nations -- have fled their homes in Kunduz since the Taliban launched a major assault on the capital of the province of the same name late last month.

The militants have seized control of dozens of districts across Afghanistan in a blistering offensive since the start of the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops on May 1.

The Taliban has captured six of Kunduz Province’s nine districts and encircled the city of Kunduz, the country’s fifth largest. Afghan security forces have been battling Taliban fighters in the city’s neighborhoods for weeks.

Dozens of residents have been killed or wounded and the increased number of those who have left either fled the violence or were forced out by the Taliban, which has used abandoned homes as positions from which to fire at government forces.

"We don’t even have a tent,” says Nasima, a mother of three whose husband was recently killed while fighting in Kunduz.

She, too, has taken refuge in an open field on the fringes of the city. "We are sitting under the scorching sun,” she adds. “All my children are hungry and thirsty.”

‘Looming Humanitarian Crisis’

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned on July 13 of a “looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the escalating conflict brings increased human suffering and civilian displacement.”

An estimated 270,000 Afghans have been newly displaced inside the country since January of this year due to the intensifying war, bringing the total number of displaced Afghans to a staggering 3.5 million, UNHCR said.

Afghan forces at the site of a clash with the Taliban in Kunduz Province on June 22.
Afghan forces at the site of a clash with the Taliban in Kunduz Province on June 22.

Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman, said a failure to stem the "violence will lead to further displacement within the country, as well as to neighboring countries and beyond.”

Some 18.4 million people, nearly half of the population, need humanitarian help, according to the UN, which has appealed for $1.3 billion in funding for 2021. It has only received about 37 percent of that figure.

The World Health Organization warned last week that it was struggling to get medicine and supplies into Afghanistan, where facilities have come under attack and some staff have fled. It estimates that more than 3 million Afghan children are at risk of “acute malnutrition.”

The intensifying war has exacerbated the precarious humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, which is suffering from a devastating drought and has seen a hike in cases and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Rocket Fire’

The number of Afghans in need of lifesaving help is only soaring as the Taliban offensive continues unabated.

Sardar Bai’s family of eight lives in a flimsy tent on a dusty plain on the outskirts of Maimana, the provincial capital of the northwestern province of Faryab.

“The Taliban attacked our village,” says the 43-year-old, who has six young children. “We were coming under constant mortars and rocket fire.”

The family fled their home district of Qaisar two weeks ago after it was overrun by the Taliban. The militants control 12 of Faryab’s 14 districts and have laid siege to Maimana, a city of more than 150,000.

“We couldn’t bring any of our possessions with us,” says Bai. “We are weak from hunger. I don’t have any money. I need to find shelter for my young children.”

Local officials say more than 12,000 families across Faryab, located on the border with Turkmenistan, have been displaced by the Taliban offensive in recent weeks.

Residents who have fled to Jawzjan's provincial capital, Sheberghan.
Residents who have fled to Jawzjan's provincial capital, Sheberghan.

Among them is Abdullah, whose family of 12 fled its home in the Qurghan district. They now reside in Sheberghan, the capital of neighboring Jawzjan Province, where the Taliban has captured seven out of the nine districts.

The militants have surrounded Sheberghan and even breached the city on July 16, sparking fear among residents.

“Our situation is very bad and we can’t return home,” he says. “Many people have fled their homes. My entire family of 12 is living in one small room.”

‘I Lost Consciousness’

Maimana is just one of a dozen cities that are under siege by the militants.

Afghan forces and Taliban militants have been engaged in fierce clashes in and around the southern city of Kandahar, the nation’s second largest and home to more than 600,000 people.

Kandahar residents being treated at the city’s main hospital.
Kandahar residents being treated at the city’s main hospital.

The militants have captured several districts surrounding the city in the past month and carried out a series of attacks on police outposts before breaching the city of Kandahar on July 9.

“I was washing myself ahead of evening prayers when a mortar landed in our house,” says Musa Jan, a local resident. “I lost consciousness. When I woke up, my wife and children were crying over me.”

Jan was hospitalized and his family has relocated to another part of the city.

His family is among 5,000 families that have fled their homes in areas in and around Kandahar, where authorities have enforced a night-time curfew.

Government troops say the militants have seized homes in residential neighborhoods, forcing civilians to flee and complicating efforts to drive the Taliban out of the city.

"There has been heavy fighting for weeks,” says Abdul Manan, a resident of Kandahar. “Mortars are being fired all the time. Those who have been able to have fled their homes.”

Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan, whose names are withheld for security reasons.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting 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.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.