Tired of waiting for government help, hundreds of villagers in a remote northern Afghan province have taken up arms against the militants who are terrorizing their villages.
Rahimullah is among the villagers in Sar-e-Pol taking the war to the Taliban and other militant groups who have taken control of large swaths of the province.
"We are stationed in a village on the front line against the Taliban," says Rahimullah, who is from Sozma Qala district. "At the moment we don't have enough weapons but we keep fighting."
"The militants have been punishing us. They have beheaded people. They have harassed harmless people," says Rahimullah, who decided to join the civilian fighting force after militants killed his unarmed cousin inside his shop.
"We rose up and took up arms against the Taliban," he says. "We will fight to the last drop of our blood."
Abdullah, from Kohistanat district, says all the male members of his family have joined the militia.
"The people have decided to rise up and fight for their rights," says Abdullah. "We have received no assistance from the government despite their pledges to send us weapons."
The villagers, fighting alongside Afghan soldiers and police, have participated in a weeks-long offensive against militants. Together they have retaken almost 40 militant-controlled villages, according to local officials.
Militants are active in half of the districts in Sar-e-Pol, fighting for groups like the Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), some of whose members have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.
"Antigovernment forces are getting stronger, the numbers in our forces are not enough to deal with them, and one of the only ways to restore security is for civilians to take up arms," says Asadullah Khurram, a military commander in Sar-e-Pol.
Khurram says that people throughout the province have answered the call to arms. But he stresses the need for more weapons as the civilian forces swell in numbers.
"All the people are ready to contribute. But the only thing holding us back is that the government has been slow in supporting us [with weapons]," he says.
Three civilian fighters were killed and several others injured in clashes with militants near the provincial capital, Sar-e-Pol, on May 5.
Sar-e-Pol, a multiethnic province, has witnessed sustained insurgent activity for years. Militants and armed gangs mostly operate at night and carry out attacks on Afghan security forces. Kidnapping and drug rings are also widespread in the province.
The IMU, active in the area for years, recently expanded its operations in northern Afghanistan and made headlines when it claimed to behead a former Afghan soldier that it said was kidnapped in the south. Local officials blamed the mass kidnapping on IS.
Militants in Sar-e-Pol kidnapped seven people in April, and then reportedly released them after ransoms were paid. In October, extremists killed over 20 Afghan soldiers in an ambush.
The Taliban has led a major spring offensive in the country’s north, which had been relatively stable compared with the explosive south and east of the country. Battles are raging in Kunduz Province, where militants have overrun several districts. In the northeast province of Badakhshan, insurgents have killed scores of Afghan soldiers and police in attacks in the past several weeks. Some Afghan police and soldiers have been beheaded.
Hundreds of foreign militants are believed to have fled a months-long Pakistani military offensive in Pakistan's restive northwest and sought sanctuary in Afghanistan amid a drawdown of NATO forces.