An abandoned government surveillance point in Kunduz (photo: Noor ul-Ayn)
The journey from Kabul to Kunduz takes eight to nine hours normally but it took us 16, switching routes to travel on roads Afghan forces had secured. We drove in silence to the sound of our nerves. On any other trip, we would stop to enjoy the landscape, take photos and share light moments. Not this time. Any group of people standing on the road put us on alert and my mind was constantly occupied with imaginary scenarios: What if the Taliban stops us? What if we hit a road side mine?
I was advised by my family members and friends to not take my mobile phone, ID card or anything that could give insurgents the chance to harm me. I set off from Kabul with two friends but convinced them to wait for me in Baghlan's capital Pul-i Khumri while I continued to Kunduz to collect my family, who were trapped amidst the fighting.
The roads leading to Kunduz city were littered with ambushed security forces vehicles riddled with bullet holes, a warning left by the Taliban to government forces travelling north from Kabul trying to reinforce their battered colleagues in Kunduz.
As we neared Kunduz, the signs of the conflict became ever more clear. Devastated residents were leaving the city with whatever means available, some on donkey back, some on four-wheel carts pulled by male members of the family; most on foot trying to reach a safer place in the neighbouring provinces.
As we entered Kunduz, we saw the city destroyed. Six days of Taliban occupation and intense fighting between government and insurgent forces had stripped the city of its livelihood. Buildings were still burning and the fading smoke was everywhere. The grim silence of the aftermath of the battle was interrupted only by sporadic gun fire and brief explosions heard from all directions. Corpses in the street were beginning to smell but no one dared to come out of their hiding places and bury the dead.
“The Taliban shot people on the streets who came out to take food for their families. Even people who were taking the wounded to hospital were shot,” Zakria Abdul Jabar, a farmer from nearby Gor Taipa District, told Afghanistan Today. “I don’t think anyone has the heart to conduct the last rights of the dead.”
The mourning after
As we drove through the tense streets, we saw a city bloodied and riddled with bullet holes. The six days of the Taliban’s siege had ended with murders, looting, torching of government facilities, gang rapes and target killings. Plundering homes, businesses, shops and government offices, the Taliban managed to terrorize residents for days.
Empty ammunition boxes, fired cartridges, defensive positions and spirals of smoke were the new Kunduz cityscape. Everyone was armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenades, machine guns and other light and heavy weaponry. Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, National Directorate of Security, Afghan Special Forces and former Jihadi commanders were scattered on the outskirts of Kunduz city, as if everyone had their own plan to defend the city.
“I don’t know where everyone is,” Noor Wali Logay, a young man roaming the streets looking for his lost relatives, told me in a haze. Noor Wali Logay had arrived in the city on Sunday the 27th of September to do some shopping for his brother’s wedding and help with the preparations to take the bride to their village in Archi District of Kunduz early Monday morning, unaware of what was coming. Noor Wali had spent a good sum of money on his hair, new shoes and was carrying 1000 afghani in smaller notes to throw at the bride and groom as they would enter their new home, an Afghan tradition.
But his family, who had come to the city to start a new chapter in their son’s life, were caught in the middle of the fight. “My father, my brothers, cousins and female members of the family are all lost,” added Noor Wali in tears. He said he was stopped and beaten by the Taliban but managed to escape and hide in a nearby home while a Taliban fighter inspected his phone. Like many others in Kunduz, he could only hope his family was okay.
Most residents were still hiding in their homes, fearing Taliban counter-attacks, despite the presence of more than 7000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) defending the retaken city when we arrived. Government forces told me that Taliban fighters were still holding residential areas, using civilians as human shields. As insurgents began to flee compound after compound, they burned, looted and destroyed facilities in their wake. Early on Sunday September 27th, officials confirmed that security forces had killed over 400 Taliban in the city and that a further 40 had been arrested.
Residents emerge from hiding
“We have been in the basement of our house for most of the week, our children are mentally traumatized by the sound of battle,” said 37-year old construction worker Gohar Watandost, stepping outside for the first time in a week. “There is no electricity, no drinking water and no medical care. There is just an immense shortage of food.”
After six-days of intense battle, residents who had fled the city were beginning to return to find their homes destroyed and looted. “I worked hard over the last ten years to build this house, hoping I would have something to secure my children's future. It is all gone in these days of Taliban horror and destruction,” said Yama Rahim, who had returned from hiding in Arachi District to find his house raised to the ground.
Other residents returned to find their homes intact but bearing Taliban slogans. “I would rather see my house crumble and turn to dust than see these writings on my walls,” said a man who did not want to be named, cleaning the freshly-scribbled graffiti 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' off his wall.
I was in Kunduz for not more than 10 hours and left as soon as I was able to collect my family, who had been trapped among the fighting. Two of my cousins who left separately for Kabul were stopped by the Taliban and questioned. They are masons by craft so they proved it and were able to pass unharmed. When I heard the story in Kabul a chill went down my spine. There would have been no way I would have passed for a mason or a construction worker.
I am glad to be back home, away from the chaos, once again able to sing my young son's favourite Baa Baa Black Sheep rhymes.