Afghan vil­lagers re­turn to rub­ble after de­feat of ISIS

The National - News - - NEWS - STE­FANIE GLINSKI Achin, Afghanista­n

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

Pho­tos Ste­fanie Glinski

Nak­ibul­lah Sahir, 29, in the ru­ins of his house in Pekha. He left when ISIS took over the vil­lage

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