War & Peace

Life on the Frontline (1): Travelling on Wardak’s Roads: ’We feel we are dead’


In a new occasional series of blogs AAN will be looking at what it is like to live in areas contested by Taleban and the Afghan government/US forces. In this first contribution, a reporter from Wardak who asked not to be named, spoke to men from Jaghatu district about travelling on the province’s roads. How hard is it simply to get around in a war zone?

The first interviewee, whom we have called Tariq, is a tribal elder from Jaghatu who lives in Kabul, but returns home frequently to look after his lands. The second interviewee Gul Muhammad (again a pseudonym) still lives in Jaghatu. Finally, Ahmad (a pseudonym) is a university graduate who cannot live in Jaghatu because there are no jobs, but cannot afford to bring his family to Kabul because rents are too high. He lives in Kabul and regularly returns to his area.*

The meeting took place in late summer, in Kabul where they could talk more freely. The conversation has been only lightly edited. Not all the incidents they mention are confirmed and indeed some may not have happened at all, but they illustrate what people believe and tell each other. Occasional explanations and additional information have been added [in square brackets].

REPORTER: What is it like getting around on Wardak’s roads?

TARIQ: About 25 days ago, a US tank was blown up by a mine [IED] on the [main Maidan-Ghazni] road. The car immediately behind it belonged to a woman doctor and the American forces shot at her car. They killed her and her son and wounded her husband.

AHMAD: Yes, first, they shot and injured her husband and she got out of the car and waved her hand at them to show she was woman and a civilian, but they shot her in the head too.**

TARIQ: Three or four times a week, NATO logistic convoys drive from Kabul to Kandahar and from Ghazni to Kabul. They cross one of the areas of Wardak province and lots of [ordinary] people are also travelling back and forth on this same patch of road. People are afraid of clashes, of mines [IEDs] and of the escorts [who are usually Afghan, but are occasionally American] that guard the convoys. If the Taleban fire at the escorts, they shoot back at civilians [because Taleban use people’s houses and orchards to fire from].

AHMAD: The Taleban are in hidden positions, so the escorts cannot see them and that’s why they open fire on ordinary people.

GUL MUHAMMAD: These sort of incidents happen a lot, maybe three times a week. There are lots of casualties.

TARIQ: Actually, when we set out from home, we think we are already dead – one hundred per cent dead!

GUL MUHAMMAD: That’s right, we count ourselves one hundred per cent dead!

AHMAD: The other day, I was going to Ghazni and this car was coming in the opposite direction towards us and it was shot at by escorts. The driver was shot and I saw the car roll off the side of the road and we passed it by. We didn’t even stop! They shoot the civilians. The escorts are a big threat. But people have to move, so for example, they get up at 3 o’clock and travel during the night to avoid the logistics convoys.

GUL MUHAMMAD: The mines [IEDs] are a serious threat too. You expect a mine here or there – at any time, you think a mine might explode.

TARIQ: You feel this threat every second you’re travelling.

GUL MUHAMMAD: There are three kinds of mines [IEDs]; one explodes when a car drives over it [a pressure plate IED], then there are mines with trip wires and mines with remote controls [the last two have to be intentionally triggered]. In the villages, people are also exposed to the threat of mines because they are planted to target the [US] patrols when they come out of their bases.***

AHMAD: Mines are buried to hit the [US] security patrols, but whoever and whatever runs over that mine, it will explode. In our village, a donkey ridden by a man stepped on a mine and it blew them both to pieces. This sort of thing happens once or twice a week. Every day, mines are planted to try to hit the forces going on patrol: this is the necessity of war.

TARIQ: The [US] forces go out every day on patrol.

AHMAD: Yesterday, [US] forces bombed a village [Akhtarkheil] and killed a girl and wounded another. Every day, there is fighting.

GUL MUHAMMAD: And every other day, cars are searched by the Taleban along the road from one to two o’clock in the afternoon. They capture whomever they want. They also take private cars sometimes. These searches happen two or three times a week. I haven’t faced them so far but lots of people say their cars were stopped by the Taleban.

[They have informers at the bus stations and elsewhere to tell them that such and such a person is coming in such and such sort of car or when they search someone and find a card from a foreign organisation or the government, that person is in trouble. Before, they would hold such people for ransom, but now the situation is getting harder and they may just get killed. They also seize cars. In some cases, if the owner has a strong relationship with the Taleban or the elders, he might be able to pay to get it back.]

TARIQ: The drivers of the campaign [here: logistic convoys] may be beheaded immediately if they are captured. Government people are also getting killed. The other day, eight people were beheaded in Maidan Shahr. When government people are captured, they are beheaded immediately.

GUL MUHAMMAD: Six policemen, along with the intelligence chief of Daimirdad district were taken from a post in the western part of Maidan Shahr district and were all killed.

AHMAD: Were they taken from a minivan?

GUL MUHAMMAD: No, they were taken from a house.

AHMAD: No, that was another case, these people were in a minivan. They had put their guns under their seats. They were going to Chak district. Someone informed on them and they were all captured and beheaded. There were eight people.

Of course, the high ranking people can travel by helicopters. The lower ranks can’t. The other day, ANA [Afghan National Army] soldiers were in a petrol station and were changing out of their uniforms so they could travel by local transport. It doesn’t matter even if there are good security measures [eg police patrols or posts], if the Taleban have been informed about you, you can’t travel safely.

TARIQ: The Taleban capture people and the police don’t care about security. The road is full of ANA and police, but still the Taleban can attack.

REPORTER: Is it like Kandahar where tribal elders can be killed for no reason?

GUL MUHAMMAD: No, Taleban [in our area] do not kill or capture tribal elders without a reason. They first find a reason [which may be ‘real’ or a pretext] and then they take action.

AHMAD: If someone talks about any member of the Taleban, saying he’s not a good person and that Taleb hears about it, they come and take that person away at once. Three people from our village were taken this way.

TARIQ: Then the aircraft are flying low and swooping on houses and this scares people, children and animals. The [US or joint US/Afghan] forces have gone down to the villages and killed and arrested school children on several occasions, so now when forces are present in an area, people don’t let their children go to school.

AHMAD: On the days that patrols are moving, whether or not there’s fighting, the schools are closed.

TARIQ: Local people blame foreign forces and the government for closing the schools because it really only happens when the patrols go out. The forces have shot dead some small children.

TARIQ: The telephones are also not working. The Taleban have burned the towers. No one can make phone calls by day or night because they burned the network stations.****

AHMAD: Because there are no phone connections, most families will leave. There are families where half of them live in the village and half in the city and they are connected by phone. Cutting the phone links mean the rest of the family may have to leave the village as well. The whole system of business is also disturbed because everything was done by phone and people have become so used to this.

The people strongly fear the Taleban and they support them only because of this fear. People dislike them, because a man becomes a Taleb and rises up and gathers some unemployed men round him and this way, he rules the people. It’s impossible for people who are [linked to the] government or international community to live in or go to Jaghatu district.

I have my home in Wardak. I can’t work even though I am a graduate engineer, because I can’t leave my village. If I left my orchards would dry up. I decided not to work with the government. I have recently opened a small cloth shop in Kabul and at least I’m happy that I can still go to my village.

* “Tariq” is from a major local mujahedin family and managed to stay in his area during the long years of war since 1978, until very recently. His place is near the Jaghatu district headquarters and he, like others in the area, moved to Kabul a couple of years ago because their houses were coming under fire when the Taleban attacked the district governor’s office. He attends jirgas of provincial elders and the governor and other officials when they meet in the provincial capital Maidan Shahr. He is in his fifties and is a large landowner. His family now has a construction and machine import businesses and also gets support from brothers living in Europe.

“Gul Muhammad” is another elder who attends the jirgas in Maidan Wardak. He still lives in Jaghatu. He is a small landowner in his late sixties and is also a former mujahed.

“Ahmad” is a university graduate who cannot live in Jaghatu because there are no jobs, but also cannot afford to bring his family to Kabul because rents are too high. He has chosen to forgo a government job in favour of running a small shop in Kot-e Sangi, near Kabul’s south-western ‘gate’. This means he can still get home to Wardak, without running the risk of being accused by the Taleban of being a spy, to see his family and water his gardens. The downside is that his economic situation is precarious.

** In a separate interview, the husband who was injured in the incident, Sayed Hekmat Agha, confirmed that his wife, son and niece were killed by American forces:

‘My son and daughter were medical students in Kabul and we went to see them every Thursday. On 30 Saratan [21 July 2011], we were travelling from Ghazni to go to Kabul. When we arrived in Hashimkhel village of Sheikhabad area, there was a US forces patrol and an armoured vehicle was blown up by mine. It was 5:30 pm and we all stopped on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway. Since we were in front of the backed-up cars, we turned back to the end of it. When the firing stopped, my son who was driving said, ‘Let’s take a different route to by-pass the blockage.’ We took that road and we were 250 m away from the blown-up armoured vehicle when an American soldier got near to us and fired at our car. This was from about 60m away. My son and nephew were killed and I was injured. My wife got out of the car and shouted, waving her hands at the soldiers to stop firing at a civilian vehicle, but she was brutally shot in her head and fell down dead. I acted like a dead person, moving little because they could have killed me too. When two black and two white American soldiers came closer, I told them, ‘You have not killed any Taliban, but you killed a doctor.’ Then they went back with an interpreter and the commander and said, ‘We apologize. It was a mistake.’

*** Another interview described how mines can scare people off in his village from the main Jaghatu district centre bazaar. He said the mines mean they either have to use longer routes to get to Ghazni or buy things in the small village stores. He also described how the Taleban let people know about mines. For example, a friend had told him about a mine which was planted near his house, but the Taleban said if he informed the Americans or deactivated it, he would be charged more than 2000 US dollars.

**** Another interviewee gave more details. The MTN antenna was burned a while ago, he said, while the Roshan antenna was burned only during August 2011. He said, people were bound to face serious problem if there were no telephones. In his village, he said people can now only talk using a weak signal if they climb onto a roof or stand on top of a hill so they can get a signal via the Ghazni stations.

 

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