Afghanistan celebrated the one year anniversary of its National Unity Government in a dark and somber way: with the collapse of the northern city of Kunduz. It was the first major city to fall to the Taliban since the US-led invasion in 2001.
The facts are still murky; allegations of government plots and foreign interference are flying around the Internet, and many are reacting bitterly to the news that the Afghan National Security Forces proved inadequate to the task of defending the city.
Counter operations to retake Kunduz have been launched, including US airstrikes. The Afghan president called for calm and issued reassurances in a press conference on Tuesday.
“Kunduz City is being cleared of terrorist groups,” Ghani told journalists.
But words will not help the residents of Kunduz, who are facing disaster. While fighting rages around them, many say they are huddled in their homes, unable to get out to buy food, with no electricity and in great fear for their lives and property.
“Nobody thought it could happen, but Kunduz collapsed, many shopkeepers and officials tried to escape, but some of them did not manage even to close up their stores,” said Jamshed Khaksar, a resident of Kunduz who has escaped to Kabul.
“My two uncles and two aunts are in Kunduz city and cannot go out. I am in touch with them. They say all the shops are closed, there is no bread in bakeries and their children are starving to death,”he added.
According to Jamshed, electrical wires were cut during the night and there is no fuel for generators.
“People in Kunduz have lost hope, they are not sure will they survive or not, so they are asking each other for forgiveness,” said Jamshed.
The Taliban are blaring their music — chants, called tarana, which feature men or boys singing without instruments, about victories, Islamic teachings, etc.
Reports of Taliban atrocities are plentiful, although there is as yet little confirmation. Doctors without Borders issued a statement Monday night saying that they have been overwhelmed by casualties; the UN is now saying that more than 100 have been killed or injured in the fighting, while more than 6,000 have fled.
The International federation of Journalists issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the Taliban torching of a Kunduz radio and TV station devoted mainly to women issues; one ANA soldier told Paiwandgah that two of his female relatives had been killed while trying to escape.
But none of these reports can as yet be independently confirmed, due to the chaos in the city.
One Kunduz resident who works as a researcher in a local think tank spent time with the insurgents. He tried to keep them from entering his home by making friends with them.
“When the Taliban came to my neighborhood my family hid in the basement. I went out of the house and welcomed them, and we went on a tour of the city. We took photos of ourselves with them. They came in government vehicles — Rangers — and there were a lot of local people like me with them.
“Most of them were speaking Pashto, but a few were speaking Dari,” he said. My friends said some were speaking Urdu as well. They were barefoot and had long hair. While I was with them they attacked the office of the Norwegian Refugee Council. They entered the NRC office and broke car windows. I later heard that they stole those cars.”
The Taliban also blew out the door of Da Afghanistan Bank, and went inside, he said.
“When the Taliban entered the city they were firing their weapons, and this resulted in casualties,” he said. “One of the nurses in a hospital told me that they came in and asked about soldiers and civilians. When the nurses refused to answer, the Taliban shot them.”
Life is getting more ad more difficult for the residents, who are coping with a lack of electricity. Telephones will work until the batteries die, but then they will be cut off. Most shops are closed, and residents are worried about running out of food.
Posts on Facebook say that even bread is scarce, and a loaf of naan that usually costs 10 Afghani (about 16 cents) now costs 50.
“The Taliban have conquered the city and now people are facing many problems. There is no electricity and water, people cannot commute and all the shops are closed”, said Kunduz resident Shafiqullah Emraan.
The appears to be general looting going on — some blame the Taliban, while others say the stealing is more general.
The Taliban, for their part, issued a statement reassuring the populace, saying they had “no intention of transgressing against …personal property, carrying out extrajudicial killings, looting or breaching the inviolability of homes.” They also told residents to carry out their normal activities “without any fear or intimidation.”
Thousands are fleeing for their lives, afraid that they will be caught in a bombing campaign when the government, backed by international forces, steps up its counterattack.
Many residents of Kunduz city say that the Taliban were able to enter the city quite easily, since the Afghan forces put up minimal resistance. Now the Taliban are entrenched in people’s homes, where it will be difficult to bomb them or fire on them without risking civilian casualties.
International offices are being evacuated, and government officials are also fleeing But with the fighting around the airport many of these people are finding themselves stuck.
The Taliban are also actively searching for them.
Not everyone is so upset about the arrival of the Taliban. one government employee, who asked not to be named, said that people were so unhappy with the government that they welcomed the insurgents.
“People are unemployed, they are being deprived of their rights,” he said. “Court cases that were postponed for two years are now being resolved by the Taliban in one hour.”
Another resident was even more effusive: “The Taliban are so kind, they do not hurt or torture people. Young people go into the streets and take selfies with the Taliban militants. Shops are open and life is normal.”
The resident, a Pashtun, would not give his name for fear of persecution by the Afghan government.
His report is at odds with much of the reporting coming out of Kunduz. Local residents say that stores are closed, fighting is ongoing, and dead bodies lie in the streets.
Abdul Manor Aqtash and Shafiq Imran contributed to this report