TARIN KOT, Afghanistan – Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have managed to access healthcare by traveling from the patches of Taliban-controlled countryside to towns and cities led by the Afghan government.
But Shah Wali, 25, is not so lucky. He is walking 50 kilometers with his sick wife to seek treatment in a remote part of Uruzgan, a rural province in southern Afghanistan.
Days after his wife fell ill, Wali decided to make the arduous journey by foot from his village in the Chinarto district to a hospital in the provincial capital, Tarin Kot, this week.
He is forced to walk on neglected, mine-riddled paths after the Taliban refused to allow them to use the only road connecting Chinarto to Tarin Kot. The hard-line group says the closure is part of their war effort, and the three-month closure of this 55-kilometer dirt track has resulted in a crippling Taliban siege of Chinarto.
“No one can imagine the difficulties we are struggling with,” Wali told Radio Free Afghanistan about life behind the Taliban blockade. “We are facing great dangers just to see a doctor.”
Wali is among an estimated 6,000 Chinarto residents the United Nations says cannot access medical services and face food shortages because of the road closure. The siege has led to the death of more than 20 civilians, most of them women and children, according to locals. Earlier this month, at least one civilian was killed and another injured when they stepped on a landmine on a mountain path out of Chinarto, according to residents and government officials.
Mohammad Essa, a tribal leader in Chinarto, says the cordon has turned their homeland into hell for up to 30,000 residents. In the absence of an accurate government census, estimates for rural populations vary considerably among residents, aid agencies, and government officials.
“We are desperate. Diseases and hunger are killing our elderly and children,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Those attempting to break the siege by using unfrequented paths face the danger of being blown up by landmines,” he added. Essa says that in addition to the recent landmine blast another improvised explosive device killed two men attempting to transport food supplies to their families last month.
He says tribal leaders have repeatedly pleaded with the Taliban to lift the siege, with no success. “If they are fighting against the government, then why have they have besieged civilians?” he said. “Even the wealthy locals are running out of food supplies to help the poor.”
A major humanitarian catastrophe is looming, he warns. “Very soon, the world will witness a disaster here,” he said. “Many people, particularly women, children, and the elderly, will die of hunger.”
He sees no logic behind the siege of Chinarto. “I want to plead with the Taliban to stop destroying civilian lives,” he said. “We call on the government to either act to open the road or send us supplies by aircraft.”
Mohammad Omar, another Chinarto resident, says the government food aid they have received in the form of wheat flour will run out soon. He says local civilians attempting to use motorcycles or cars to travel have faced the Taliban’s wrath. “They confiscate your vehicle and tell you to leave forever,” he said of the stark punishments meted out locally. “We want them to show some compassion by opening this road.”
When contacted, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, was vague about the group’s aims in enforcing the road closure. He first said there was reason to close the road temporarily in a “limited form.” But in a text later he added that “Jihadist compulsions require the road to be closed until further notice.”
Mohammad Omar Sherzad, Uruzgan’s newly appointed governor, says the local government is trying to open the road peacefully by negotiating with the Taliban through tribal intermediaries.
“If we can’t reach an agreement, we will be compelled to use force to open this road,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We will be compelled to build posts and deploy forces to secure this road.”
As long-delayed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were set to begin on September 12, many Afghans hope they will quickly move toward a cease-fire so that civilians living on the country’s front lines can finally see some respite from fighting.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Sharifullah Sharafat from Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.