On Monday, the Afghan government conducted airstrikes on Taliban-controlled territory in Dashti-i Archi district in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. According to government officials, the strikes targeted a Taliban gathering, but caused heavy civilian casualties.
Amid conflicting reports of casualty numbers from the Afghan government, local officials confirmed to DW that the incident killed both Taliban militia and civilians.
“The airstrike was carried out on a Taliban military area, which sadly killed civilians too. We are investigating to find out what these civilians were doing in the area,” Nematullah Temori, spokesman for the Kunduz governor, told DW.
However, locals are presenting a different picture than Afghan officials. Most victims, according to them, were young children who were attending a ceremony called Dastar Bandi in a local madrasa, which celebrates young men completing the memorization of the Koran.
“I attended the burial of at least 40 children who were killed in the airstrike. More than 15 are still missing,” Khalid Yousufi, a local resident who also lost relatives in the incident, told DW.
“The government justifies [the attack] citing Taliban presence, but the area is under Taliban control and there are always members of the group in gatherings,” he added.
According to a provincial spokesman, over 50 civilians wounded in the attack were brought to a hospital in Kunduz city. “So far, seven of them have lost their lives due to the severity of their injuries,” he said.
“My son is now at the hospital but doctors told me he will get better. But his friend who was also present at the scene died in the airstrike,” Juma Gul, father of one survivors now recovering in Kunduz city, told DW.
Caught in the middle of conflict
Civilians are used as human shields by the Taliban, falsely targeted by government forces or simply trapped in the middle of a bloody conflict. They have paid a heavy price in the 17-year-long Afghan war.
“The Taliban have taken away our normal way of life. We have lost everything to war, but the government mistakes us for the same group instead of giving us protection,” local resident Yousufi said.
“We are prisoners of this war,” he added.
The Dashti-i Archi incident is the latest in a series of violent events that have claimed the lives of Afghan civilians. More than 10,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan in 2017 alone, according to a United Nations report.
Read more: Why Kabul struggled to retake Kunduz
While the majority of the casualties were inflicted by anti-government forces, the air campaign by the Afghan government and its international allies accounted for 7 percent of the casualties.
“We don’t know where to go anymore, we pay with our lives and the lives of our children no matter where we are and who controls our area,” Haji Obaid, a former resident of Dasht-i Archi district said.
“When a bullet is fired it cannot distinguish between who is a Talib fighter and who is an innocent child or woman,” he added.
According to data released by the US government, the Taliban controlled 14 percent of Afghan districts while 30 percent of the Afghan districts were contested between government forces and insurgent groups.
The Taliban and other militant groups like the “Islamic State” (IS) have stepped up attacks to expand their presence in the last three years.
Life in these areas, according to Kunduz based civil activist Enayatullah Khaliq, is a fight for survival with the risk of facing an attack from either side of the conflict.
“The Taliban impose very strict laws and the government fails to offers services to those people,” he told DW. “They lose everything including any hope for the future,” he added.
Fleeing is only option for survival
For many Afghan locals, leaving their homes is the only way to avoid becoming a victim to incidents like Monday’s airstrike in Kunduz. According to a UN report, more than 54,000 Afghans have chosen to flee due to intense fighting where they live.
With over 13,000 internally displaced Afghans, Kunduz hosts the highest number of Afghans who have left their homes due to the ongoing conflict, according to a recent report from the United Nations office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Home to around 1,000 German troops until the end of 2013, Kunduz is an Afghan province with the heaviest Taliban presence. This has forced thousand of families from their villages.
“I and my family stayed in Dasht-i Archi for sometime with the hope the fighting would end but that did not happen. Finally I had to leave everything behind and move to Kunduz city last year,” Haji Obaid, who still does not have a permanent place to stay in Kunduz, told DW.
Afghan officials confirm OCHA’s data but stress that some of those displaced by conflict move back to their areas once the fighting ends.
“According to our data, between 2,050 and 3,000 displaced families have moved backed to their areas,” Mehr Khuda Sabar, head Afghan government’s office for displaced persons, told DW, adding that the government provides emergency aid to all families displaced by conflict.
However, that emergency aid is never enough, according Hajib Obaid. Many displaced families, he said, need help with the future of their children which they cannot get.
“Our children leave school and have to work in cities and afford high costs of living. We don’t just lose our homes, but also the future of our children,” he said.