The South Asia Channel
Struggling to Survive in Afghanistan
Golpari is just one of an increasing number of women caught in the cross-fire of the war.
When I met Golpari, a sun-baked, craggy woman from Helmand, she strode confidently into the one-room mud brick house, dragging her ten-year-old daughter Nazdana by the wrist. She unapologetically pushed other women, toddlers, and babies aside to sit directly across from me on the filthy carpet, brushing loose dirt from the plastic bags wrapped around her feet, fashioned as the most rudimentary of shoes.
Golpari pulled her clothes up and off, hoisting up the legs of her dirty black pants to show me large welts on the inside of her upper thighs, zipping down a hooded jacket to reveal a vacant patch of skin where her right breast once had been. Shouting for my attention above the others in her native Pashto, she pulled aside her daughter’s shirt. Nazdana’s slight frame was rippled with burn marks, and Golpari demonstrated for me how, with the skin fused together, her young daughter couldn’t lift her right arm higher than her collarbone.
Four months ago, Golpari and Nazdana, along with other members of their extended family, fled their home in Sangin in northern Helmand, first making their way to Kandahar and then later, on to Kabul. A bomb attack killed 20 members of Golpari’s family, including young children; some killed by the direct force or shrapnel from the bomb as it exploded next to their home, others were trapped as their house burned to the ground. “America” — a catchall phrase many Afghans use to describe international troops — was responsible for the bombing, she said, explaining that “when they see a man with a white turban they think it is al Qaeda and they just bomb us.”
Golpari and Nazdana are just two civilian victims caught in the wave of violence in Afghanistan that has intensified since international troops began their withdrawal. According to a new report from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in 2014 at least 3,699 Afghan civilians died due to the war. That is a 22 percent increase since 2013, and the highest civilian death toll on record. Women and children were also more affected. Compared to the previous year, there was a 40 percent increase in children casualties, with 714 killed and 1,760 injured; and a 21 percent increase in women casualties with 298 killed and 611 injured. These figures, according to UNAMA Head Nicholas Haysom, are a result of “appalling levels of violence in Afghanistan.”
A lot of this violence has taken place in Sangin, the battleground of some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest fighting between international troops, Afghan national forces, and the Taliban. British troops — who withdrew from Helmand in October 2014 — suffered nearly a quarter of their 453 casualties of the Afghan war in Sangin. In the latter half of 2014, as international troops packed up, Taliban fighters were reportedly overrunning some parts of Sangin, overwhelming Afghan security forces who were ill-prepared for a concerted Taliban push to take control of the opium-rich province.
According to the UNAMA report, in some areas, there has been a direct correlation between the full transition of military responsibility to Afghan national security forces and an increase in civilian casualties. In particular, the winding down of international military combat air support has allowed the Taliban and other anti-government armed groups to move more freely into populated areas, like Sangin, in apparent efforts to take and hold larger areas of territory. The battle has been brought closer to villages and family homes, like Golpari’s, with deadly consequences for civilians. In 2014, ground fighting in Sangin caused 455 civilian casualties, almost 10 times higher than the number recorded in 2013.
Golpari’s cousin, Dolkhaneh, cloaked in a dirtied black chador, her arms adorned with pink plastic bangles, pointed out to me her own scars from the same bombing; dozens of small lacerations mark her face, scattered mainly around her mouth, some crisscrossing over her lips. Her mother and sister had also been injured in the attack, and her one-year-old son had died, “blown into pieces,” she said, “I had to collect his body in parts to bury him.” Her husband, who had been a farmer in Helmand, now works as a shoe shiner for small change on the streets of Kabul and “lost his mind” after the death of their son. Dolkhaneh regularly experiences fainting spells, she said, and is “not normal anymore.” She told me: “When I remember collecting pieces of (my son’s) body I cannot control myself…I can no longer have patience with my other children and I sometimes hit them.”
Dolkhaneh said that up until 2013 her family had not been caught up in any of the violence. The Taliban, and other anti-government groups, had left them alone. But around a year ago, the Taliban placed some roadside bombs near their village to attack the Afghan military. From that point on, “we were seen as the opposition,” Dolkhaneh said. International and Afghan forces focused on their village to root out the Taliban they believed were hiding there.
According to Dolkhaneh, they were soon being pressured from both sides. Taliban fighters burned down their local schools in Sangin, Dolkhaneh said, in retaliation for allowing girls to be educated. As the Taliban came more regularly to their village, Afghan military interest intensified, and they pressured the families to report on the Taliban. Their children could no longer go to school, and increased fighting meant that attempting to get food or access to basic services became perilous.
Helmand was still home for her family. Golpari said: “We wish for the day we can return, but we cannot have hope. It is impossible.” She could not see a time where the government and the Taliban would call a truce.
“People fight because there is a lack of education in this country,” Golpari explained. “The Taliban want a seat in the government, maybe if they were given one…”
“No,” Dolkhaneh interjected. “They completely want power and it will not be given to them. We can never have peace.”
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