Ruined in rubble, an Afghan village struggles to rebuild

Ruined in rubble, an Afghan village struggles to rebuild
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Ruined in rubble, an Afghan village struggles to rebuild

Ruined in rubble, an Afghan village struggles to rebuild

ARZO, Afghanistan – When Muhammad Akram Sharifi returned to the village he was forced to flee a year earlier, he was devastated. Mosques, schools and shops in the market were all in ruins. Such was his house.

“My children, my grandchildren – 22 people lived here,” Mr Sharifi said last week. “And now it has all turned into rubble. My pockets are empty. What shall we do?”

It is impossible to say how much ammunition was spent in the fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the village of Arzo. It is a dusty settlement of about 300 houses perched on a rolling hill. But it is also a strategic entry point into the city of Ghazni, a prize in the long war in Afghanistan.

Bullet holes and caved-in structures are visible at every turn. Destruction is everywhere, seemingly frozen in time.

Most of Arzo’s residents left before the battle began. But according to Haji Shahadullah and other villagers, 40 civilians have been killed and at least 60 injured in firing and explosions in the past 15 months. His two children are also among the dead.

With the Taliban winning, what will happen next for the people of Arzo is uncertain. International aid to Afghanistan has been halted, and the new government’s ability to provide public services – let alone rebuild villages such as Arzo that were practically destroyed in fighting – is unproven. Residents say food is starting to get harder to find.

When the Taliban made their rapid progress across the country over the summer, many villages and cities were handed over without a fight. Local deals were cut, arms and ammunition were taken and soldiers were sent home.

But other places became flash points, among them Arzo, a village six miles southwest of the provincial capital Ghazni city. And when they did, the prolonged standoff took a heavy human and physical toll.

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The fighting is now largely quiet, areas of the country that were previously off-limits are now accessible. A visit to places like Arzo, once home to more than 10,000 residents, offers a glimpse into how the recently concluded battles were waged.

“A few years ago a nearby military base was captured,” Mr Sharifi recalled. “They rebuilt it next to my house. The Taliban fought from my house and dug tunnels in other houses so they could move around.

Arzo village is located on the main artery connecting Ghazni and Paktika provinces. The headmaster of the local boys’ school, Fazal Karim, explained that it was a lifeline for the beleaguered southeastern provinces, and the Afghan government wanted to keep it open at all costs.

This put the village in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

Mr. Karim’s school had paid a particularly heavy price in the days before the fall of the city of Ghazni, on 12 August, when government forces excavated.

“They built army bases along the route, many of them on private land,” he said. “A checkpoint was built right outside the school walls.”

On a recent visit, laborers could be seen working to rebuild one of those walls.

One of the men said the Taliban had dug a tunnel inside the compound, leading the army base to the front. The insurgents often used that tactic to attack several posts of Afghan security forces. In the courtyard where the entrance to the 10-foot-wide tunnel used to be, a pile of dust and rocks was visible.

Mr Karim said that when the security situation in Arzo started deteriorating, the education department decided to move the classes to a village closer to the city.

“The Taliban entered the school and started fighting from here,” he said. “As a result, the entire school was destroyed. In early August, a bomb was dropped from the air and hit one of our classrooms.” The school’s corrugated metal roof is now crumpled like a broken wound.

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After the new Taliban government announced the reopening of schools, classes returned to the ruined campus and students began to return. Rows of bicycles now line the shot-up walls of three squat buildings.

“All our 1,100 boys are not here yet, as some families are still displaced,” Mr. Karim said. “Not everyone returned.” Girls’ school has also reopened, but only till class VI.

In a local mosque, the smell of fresh paint persisted. Inside, villagers talked about the challenges they had endured.

Mr Sharifi said the prices of food items have doubled in the last few weeks. Many items are not available in villages, and people have to travel to the city to find them. The shortage of flour has been the biggest concern for the villagers. With the prices rising so fast, many shopkeepers stopped buying it on their own.

In Ghazni, outside the governor’s compound, burqa-clad women queued up to register for government assistance. He said the Taliban had announced that women were not allowed to go out without a male relative, but a drive through the city revealed that instruction was ignored.

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Ghazni is an important center connecting Kabul to the south and west of the country. It once served as the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire, which expanded from modern-day Iran to the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century. Most recently, US special forces stationed here after the Taliban launched a surprise attack on the city in August 2018. It was the last time the US military had committed ground troops to stop a Taliban attack.

At a police station in the foothills of Ghazni’s treasured stronghold, a Taliban member, who identified himself only as Omar, was at a gathering of fellow fighters after the afternoon prayer. He said that he was in a fight for Arjo.

“I started jihad against the Americans 16 years ago – now I am 31,” he brags, scrolling through photos and videos of himself on rooftops with his Russian marksman rifle.

One video showed half a dozen Afghan soldiers dead on the road, smoking their vehicle.

“We ambushed them near Arjo,” said Umar. “Everyone in that village knows me.”

Arzo’s gravel streets, lined with mud-brick houses where so much death and devastation occurred in the past months, are slowly coming back to life. Residents are dribbling back, many of them working to rebuild what was lost. Young and old are shoveling, hoisting iron buckets and tying layers upon layers of mortar.

Mr Sharifi made his home in Arjo 15 years ago, he said. Last week, he saw its remains from the top of another pile of rubble.

“At that time,” he said, “there was money, there were jobs. Now we have nothing.”

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