Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan families sit in a public park, taking refuge from the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan troops in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 10, 2021. At least 60,000 people, more than half children, have fled the nearby city of Kunduz alone after it fell to the Taliban.

Afghans huddle in Kabul parks as Taliban take another capital

Over 17,000 Afghans have fled their provincial homes and are taking refuge in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, as the Taliban offensive expands. On Thursday, the Taliban took a tenth provincial capital weeks before the formal end of the U.S. military's mission in the country. 

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in northern Afghanistan to escape battles that have overwhelmed their towns and villages as government forces try to fend off rapidly advancing Taliban forces. Families have flowed into the capital, Kabul, living in parks and streets with little food or water.

On Tuesday, families described bombardment, gunfire, and airstrikes pounding their neighborhoods in multiple parts of the north, with civilians caught in the crossfire. Some said that as the Taliban captured towns, they hunted down and killed male relatives of members of the police forces and quickly started imposing new restrictions on women.

The Taliban captured Ghazni, a strategic provincial capital near Kabul, and broke through defensive lines in Afghanistan's third-largest city Thursday, further squeezing the country's embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.

Seizing Ghazni cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country's southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after U.S. and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government. Meanwhile, the assault on the city of Herat, still raging Thursday night, could put nearly all of western Afghanistan under Taliban control just a day after the militants completed their capture of the country's northeast.

While Kabul itself isn't directly under threat yet, the loss of Ghazni and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation. Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day.

Fawzia Karimi fled to Kabul from Kunduz, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, where the Taliban have been advancing through neighborhoods. She said government forces didn’t fight when the insurgents overran her district, but were bombing the residential area now that it was in Taliban hands.

“If the government cannot do anything, it should just stop the bombardment and let the Taliban rule,” she said. She left with her five children when an airstrike hit her neighbor’s home. Her 16-year-old son was killed in a crossfire three months ago.

Ms. Karimi was among hundreds of people from around the north who were crowded into Kabul’s main downtown park, Shahr-e-Naw. Men, women, and children have been sleeping for days outside on the ground in blazing summer heat. A few have blankets to pad the ground or sheets to hang up as curtains for some privacy.

The surge in displaced people has heightened international calls for pressure to stop the Taliban assault. At least 60,000 people, more than half of them children, have fled their homes in Kunduz alone since the weekend, Save the Children said. Some moved to calmer parts of Kunduz city, living outside without food, water, or medical care, it said.

“Markets have been destroyed and are now mostly closed, leaving families without anywhere to get food,” the group’s country director Christopher Nyamandi said. At least 27 children have been killed around the country in the past three days, the group said.

More than 17,000 people from the north have arrived in Kabul in the past two weeks, staying in parks, with relatives, or on the streets, said Tamim Azimi, spokesman for the state ministry for disaster management.

In the Shahr-e-Naw park, almost no government help has come to the families. Some Kabul residents have brought limited amounts of food and water and some supplies. Ms. Karimi, whose husband had stayed behind in Kunduz, said she couldn’t get any because the volunteers wouldn’t talk to her, because she was a woman.

“I got here this morning and have had nothing to eat,” she said. “Should I leave my children hungry lying under burning sun?”

Only two toilets serve the 400 people in the park. There are no medical facilities and the displaced can’t afford nearby medical centers, even as some children suffer from diarrhea.

At another park on Kabul’s northern outskirts where some 2,000 displaced were living, Zarmina Takhari, said she had received no government help since arriving three days ago and has had to rely on food from volunteers.

She fled her village, Shahr-e-Kohna in Takhar province after 12 of her relatives were killed, she said. Four of them, including her brother and uncle, were in the police forces and were killed fighting the Taliban. When the insurgents seized the village, they identified their family as linked to the police and came to their house, where they shot eight other male relatives to death.

Her husband and other brothers stayed behind to bury the dead. “The Taliban have no mercy,” she said.

Nasir Ahmed, 14, said he witnessed the Taliban whipping a man with a rubber hose after a picture of him posing with an Afghan flag was found on his phone. He said he also saw insurgents hitting women whose head coverings were considered improper.

The teen had to leave his school as violence grew. “I missed the last year of school because of COVID-19 and this year because of war,” he said. “I don’t see any future for myself.”

The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said Tuesday that her office had counted at least 183 deaths and 1,181 injuries among civilians in the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Herat, and Kunduz alone since Monday. She cautioned that those were only confirmed casualties and “the real figures will be much higher.”

Her office said it had received reports of summary executions, attacks against current and former government officials and their relatives, military use and destruction of homes, schools, and clinics, and the laying of large numbers of improvised explosive devices.

With the international troops heading for the exits from Afghanistan, Ms. Bachelet said: “People rightly fear that a seizure of power by the Taliban will erase the human rights gains of the past two decades” – alluding to the international forces’ presence since 2001.

But many were fleeing simply to escape the threat of fighting around their homes and pleaded for a halt in the battle.

Najia, who like many other Afghans goes by one name, said she reached Kabul on Saturday from Kunduz with her five children and husband. They fled after their house became the frontline between the combatants.

“Mortar shields, grenades, and bullets were coming from all around and we were stuck in between,” she said, adding “The whole north is ablaze with war.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Jon Gambrel also contributed to this report.

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