For more than a week, residents of Lashkar Gah city in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, have been on edge.
Some have been forced to flee their homes because of fresh fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces that erupted suddenly last weekend.
Local authorities report that as many as 35,000 people may have been displaced and 200 people have been killed or injured.
Photos and videos posted online show residents fleeing the city on motorbikes and in the backs of trucks. Not knowing how long they will be on the move, many can be seen leaving with their belongings — blankets, furniture and other goods — piled high up on car rooftops and trucks.
Dr. Lia Harris, a pediatrician with medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said medical centers in the area have been treating casualties with bullet wounds and injuries from improvised explosive devices. Some of the injured are women and children.
“Helmand province has been the focus of ongoing conflict for over a decade, but it really escalated on October 11,” Harris told The World over an unstable phone line.
The recent attempt by the Taliban to take over Lashkar Gah last weekend — and the Afghan government’s response — comes as officials from the two groups meet in Doha, Qatar, to negotiate a US-brokered peace deal.
The Taliban had previously made an agreement with the US in which the Americans agreed to withdraw their troops if the Taliban reduce fighting and sit down with Afghan government representatives.
That agreement was signed in February. But since then, the Taliban have continued to carry out violence across the country, hoping that such provocations could increase their leverage in the negotiations. The group carries out near-daily attacks, killing Afghan forces and civilians.
The World reached out to a Taliban spokesman for comment, but he did not respond.
In the meantime, the roads and highways in Helmand are currently “dangerously impassable,” said Harris, who took up her post last month. Locals are cut off from life-saving medical care.
“A child or a pregnant woman who is in labor previously would have been able to come to Lashkar Gah and access our resources. At the moment, they can’t come,” Harris said.
Marianna Cortesi, hospital coordinator at the MSF-supported Boost provincial hospital in Helmand province, described how one mother, seven months pregnant, lost her unborn child after a stray bullet hit her.
Taliban and Afghan security forces face off
Shortly after the Taliban began their offensive last weekend, the Afghan government deployed its security forces to stop the group.
Videos posted online showed security forces moving in during the early hours of the morning. They managed to push back Taliban fighters, but they also suffered painful losses.
On Wednesday, two Afghan military helicopters were assigned to drop off new troops and evacuate soldiers who had been wounded. But the helicopters experienced technical issues and crashed, killing nine people.
Among them was 31-year-old Captain Obaid Ahmadi.
His former classmate, Kahkashan Koofi, told The World that Ahmadi was engaged and was getting ready to plan his wedding.
“Every day, in every corner of this country, we watch as our loved ones get killed. Women bury their husbands, mothers are left to mourn and shed tears for their beloved sons.”
“Every day, in every corner of this country, we watch as our loved ones get killed,” Koofi said, taking a pause to compose herself because she was so distraught at the loss of her friend. “Women bury their husbands, mothers are left to mourn and shed tears for their beloved sons.”
Koofi wishes the Taliban and Afghan government would come to an agreement soon.
“I want to ask them if taking power is really worth inflicting all this pain on people? To kill so many young Afghans with hopes and dreams?” she said.
On Thursday, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that after several meetings with the Taliban, the group agreed to “re-set actions” by “strictly adhering” to the US-Taliban agreement.
“This means reduced numbers of operations. At present too many Afghans are dying. With the re-set, we expect that number to drop significantly,” Khalilzad wrote.
Many Afghans are hoping that this time the Taliban are serious about launching fewer attacks.