Afghan villagers return to rubble after defeat of ISIS
After more than four years under ISIS, there is barely a house still standing in Pekha, a village in the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
Buildings are riddled with bullet holes; homes are mere rubble. On some of the walls still standing, the extremist group’s black flag has been hastily scraped off.
The government gained control of Pekha this year and recently, hundreds of ISIS fighters surrendered after military operations in Nangarhar, one of ISIS’s main bases in the country. More are expected to surrender soon.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday that ISIS’s “backbone was broken”.
The villagers in Pekha say their spirit has been broken too.
“Just look in any direction – everything is rubble. We have to start all over again,” said Nakibullah Sahir, 29, sitting amid the ruins of his home.
“Many of us left during ISIS control. The militants destroyed so much and countless American bombs were dropped at the same time. It was unbearable then, but it isn’t much better now. We came back to nothing.”
In recent weeks, the men of the village have been meeting at the home of an elder – one of the few houses not destroyed – to discuss how to move forward. “But we’re broken and there’s little hope,” said Malek Esmat, 50, one of the elders.
Conflict has long been part of daily life in Achin. Taliban militants, who have waged an insurgency across the country since being toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001, were active here until ISIS captured the district in 2015.
“The fighting in Achin between 2015 and 2018 has frequently been chaotic, brutal and violent to a degree not seen before in the district, or elsewhere in the country,” S Reza Kazemi of the Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote in a report.
“Many civilians have been killed, injured, kidnapped for ransom, dispossessed of their property or displaced. Some unmarried women were also forcibly married,” mostly to ISIS fighters.
The emergence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 attracted not only local fighters but also many foreigners, according to Lt Gen Abdul Khalid, a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.
The United Nations said in July that there were between 2,500 and 4,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. The country’s National Directorate of Security and its Ministry of Defence play down that number.
Since the start of the year, about 90 per cent of Achin has returned to government control for the first time in decades, said district governor Ashikullah Sadat.
Tens of thousands of people fled Achin during ISIS rule, but more than 6,000 families have returned since the start of the year, according to Mr Sadat.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network estimates the current population of the district to be between 104,000 and 322,000 people.
Nestled amid mountains and surrounded by green farmland and apple trees, Pekha’s setting is idyllic.
But despite being liberated, danger still lurks. Only a few kilometres away, there are ISIS militants hiding in tree-covered mountain terrain, and the sound of drones flying overhead at night raises fears of new air strikes.
Musam Shinwari, 25, a farmer from Pekha, lost four family members in a US air strike that destroyed his house two years ago. He was injured in both arms and legs and continues to suffer pain and health issues. There are no functioning health centres in Pekha, so getting treatment means a trip to the provincial capital Jalalabad, about an hour away.
“Worse still is that I can’t work any more due to my injuries,” Mr Shinwari said.
The village also no longer has a school after it was destroyed by ISIS. The children of families that returned have nothing to do but play in the brick ruins and the surrounding farmland, exposing them to another danger – mines laid by ISIS and unexploded ordnance from air strikes and fighting in the area.
Power supply to the village is erratic, and many of the roads leading to it are unpaved.
“The government doesn’t have the budget to rebuild,” Mr Sadat said. “The destruction was so steady over the years that it’s difficult to know where to even start. More than 6,000 people have lost their homes.
“They want to return to their lives, but they don’t have the money.”
Mr Sahir is one of them. He lives with his family in a tent away from the village, but travels there each day to meet relatives and try to rebuild his house, hoping to return eventually.
“I almost can’t keep up,” he said of the village’s changing fortunes. “First the Taliban, then ISIS, now the government.
“Seeing your house and your life destroyed – it does something to you, it destroys part of your soul.
“We all struggle with trauma and many are depressed. We’re trying to make sense of what happened, but it’s hard. We saw ISIS face to face and they have taken much from us.”
Mr Sadat says security has improved in Achin and peace is returning, but villagers are sceptical.
Over one of the ISIS flags, villagers have drawn an Afghan flag with the words “we want peace” below it.
“It might not be here yet, but we hope that it will come soon,” Mr Sahir said.
“And with it, most people will return and rebuild.”
Village elders in Pekha in eastern Afghanistan gather at one of the only houses not destroyed by ISIS or in government and US air strikes. The government regained control of the village this year
Nakibullah Sahir, 29, in the ruins of his house in Pekha. He left when ISIS took over the village