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Sleeping In Graveyards: Embattled Afghan City Of Kunduz Facing Humanitarian Crisis

  • Frud Bezhan
  • Ajmal Arian

An Afghan family leaves Kunduz following clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces.

An Afghan family leaves Kunduz following clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces.

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- The roar of rockets and the crackle of gunfire are ringing through the deserted streets of Kunduz, where fierce street-to-street gunbattles have raged since Taliban militants launched a multipronged attack on October 3.

The fighting has left residents in the strategic regional capital in northern Afghanistan facing a looming humanitarian crisis as water, food, medicine, and electricity supplies run short.

Dozens of civilians have been killed and injured in the violence and thousands have fled their homes to nearby towns with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Those who remain recount stories of struggle and horror: having their homes torched by the Taliban; being used by invading militants as human shields; being left with no option but to sleep outside to escape the shelling.

Government troops, backed by Afghan special forces and U.S. air strikes, are struggling to clear the city of hundreds of Taliban fighters who have taken positions in residential areas and have entrenched themselves on the outskirts of the city. On October 7, Afghan forces were still conducting "clearing operations" throughout Kunduz, which briefly fell to the Taliban last year.

'Sleeping In Graveyards'

"I went outside to buy food and other supplies, but I couldn't find anything," Abdullah, a resident of Kunduz, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on October 7. "People who have fled their homes are sleeping in graveyards."

Abdullah said that nearly all the shops in the city had been shut down. In one bakery that was still operating, he said, the price of bread had gone up from 10 afghanis ($0.15) to over 70 ($1.05). At night, he said, the city is illuminated only by rocket and gunfire.

"People are scavenging for food and water," he said. "There's nobody to help us -- not the government or anybody else."

"Everyone is trying to flee the city," said Rahimullah, another resident of Kunduz. "There is total chaos here and the situation is getting worse by the day."

The United Nations says as many as 10,000 people have fled the city of nearly 270,000 in the past few days. Many have escaped to neighboring provinces in northern Afghanistan. Others have taken overcrowded taxis to the nation's capital, Kabul, a pricey and grueling 400-kilometer journey on dangerous roads.

An Afghan National Army commando aims his weapon amid ongoing fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz on October 5.

An Afghan National Army commando aims his weapon amid ongoing fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz on October 5.

"Many families were unable to bring their possessions with them and are in a precarious position," Dominic Parker, head of the UN's humanitarian coordination office, said in a statement on October 6. "We have had reports that some families have been forced to sleep out in the open and many have few food supplies."

The same day, Amnesty International said that "the Afghan government and Taliban forces should urgently facilitate swift and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief into Kunduz, where thousands of civilians are trapped in increasingly dire conditions."

'Shortage Of Doctors'

Among those fleeing the city are many staff members of Kunduz's main public hospital, which was hit by rockets and shelling on October 5.

The 200-bed public hospital was left as the main provider of medical care in Kunduz after the trauma center run by the French charity Doctors Without Borders was destroyed by a U.S. air strike last year that killed 42 people, many of them patients.

Marzia Yaftali Salaam, a doctor, said that as of October 6 the hospital has been inundated by at least 210 patients, many of them civilians injured in the violence.

"We have a huge shortage of doctors and medical supplies," says Salaam, who added that some patients have had to be transported to clinics in surrounding areas and provinces. "If we don't get any supplies or help, we could have to stop our services."

WATCH: A video report on the Kunduz fighting from October 5

The Public Health Ministry said additional medical supplies and personnel from neighboring provinces were waiting to be transported to Kunduz, but they must first wait for the fighting to ease.

'Hiding In Their Basements'

A female resident of Kunduz, who asked not to be identified, said by telephone that she and her four children have been trapped for days inside the basement of their house, located about 1 kilometer from the city center.

"Everybody sought shelter in basements when the fighting reached our area," she says. "Those who did not have basements in their houses rushed to their neighbors to hide. At least two children were killed in our neighborhood and have been buried. We are close to a military checkpoint, so we have been hit harder than other areas."

She said they were afraid to go outside because they could hear gunfire and explosions and Taliban fighters were roaming the streets. A few times a day, she said, she goes upstairs to gather the little food remaining in their house. They cook in the dark in the basement.

Her husband goes out into the streets several times a day in search of food and clean water but often returns empty-handed.

"We have food to last for maybe two or three days but, if the fighting continues, we have nothing stored for the long-term, so we don't know what will happen," she says. "In our area, all the shops have been closed except for one bakery, and even there only some could get their bread because there wasn't enough for everyone."

With additional reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Freshta Jalalzai
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org

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