The Kunduz legacy: 13,000 families flee Afghanistan's battle-torn region
By Catherine James in Kabul
ABC News (Australia)
October 14, 2015
With the announced withdrawal of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan's northern city of Kunduz, the extent of the loss and devastation is emerging along with the exit of many thousands from the region.
All 16 humanitarian agencies in Kunduz — a strategic northern capital — closed their offices and relocated staff when the city was stormed.
Reports of extensive damage to properties means returning to full operations will be slow.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the largest organisations operating in Kunduz province, has already confirmed its losses.
"In Kunduz, we evacuated 31 staff and we are aware our office has been looted, but without safe access we still do not know the extent of the damage or the assets stolen," Qurat Sadozai, NRC country director, said before the Taliban's withdrawal.The World Food Program provides four pieces of bread per person per day to people who have fled Kunduz.(Photo: WFP: Sven Thelin)
But, it's the psychological fallout from the militants' assault that will also be difficult to deal with. While Afghan government officials have now declared that civilian life is returning to normal in the city, a well-known Afghan entertainer, Jawad Ghazaiyar, assisted by talking with families who had fled the fighting and were now searching for homes in Kabul — permanently.
"They do not want to go back there," Mr Ghazaiyar said later.
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated around 13,000 families escaped Afghanistan's fifth-largest city in the past two weeks, with many now relying on charity and humanitarian agencies for survival.
These families join the one million Afghans who are already considered internally-displaced persons (IDPs) — effectively refugees in their own country.
In 2015 alone, around 150,000 Afghans became so-called IDPs, according to the NRC, almost half of which were from the country's north.
The Kunduz crisis perpetuates the country's desperate cycle — the fighting pushes more into displacement, which increases demand for humanitarian aid, which is then increasingly difficult to deliver in the degraded security environment.
The cycle raises the question: Could the humanitarian needs that go unmet further feed Afghanistan's conflict? Scott Anderson, the Kabul-based deputy head of UNOCHA, thinks so.
"In my opinion, yes, a lack of aid in impassable areas could feed insecurity," Mr Anderson said.
"While not the only cause, it does contribute.
"If people in need are unable to satisfy their basic requirements to live, the accompanying distress and feeling of hopelessness could contribute to insecurity and radicalism."
The NRC's Qurat Sadozai acknowledged the problem.
"Demand for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan right now far outstrips the resources the international community has to provide," Ms Sadozai said.
Hospital facing shortages of staff and supplies
The Taliban stormed Kunduz city on September 28 and managed to hold it for a few days before the Afghan security forces pushed them back onto the defensive.
Dr Saad Mukhtar, the provincial director of public health, said the city's 330-bed hospital was barely operational during the fighting, with only 30 to 40 per cent of necessary supplies and staff.
Throughout most of the 14-day battle, it only provided basic first aid, he said.
Kunduz's only fully operational hospital had been the Medecins Sans Frontiers' trauma centre before it was destroyed in an airstrike by US forces at the request of the Afghan army.
Before the airstrike, MSF said it had treated 400 wounded in the first five days of the Taliban assault.
Dr Mukhtar said the surrounding provincial health clinics had treated 725 during the two weeks of the battle.
But, the total number of casualties and the death toll remains unclear at this stage, with many civilians not wanting to risk the journey to get medical help.
Locals report seeing bodies left to rot in streets
Faisal Rasuli, a resident of Kunduz, who remained in the city with his father until this week, said his 22-year-old neighbour died from a loss of blood at home after being wounded in crossfire.
He saw dead bodies left to rot in the streets, creating a stench throughout the city, until the Afghan army was able to begin clearing bodies a few days ago.
The Taliban has now posted a statement on a website associated with the group hailing its Kunduz incursion as a huge success that "won over the hearts of the entire nation".
It said it was withdrawing fighters to protect the people from air raids and protect its own forces.
Kunduz is not an isolated battlefield. Rather, it is emblematic of Afghanistan's flagging security across its northern provinces.
Conflict has escalated since last year with a major problem being the number of parties involved also increasing, according to Kate Clark, Afghanistan Analysts Network country director.
"Not only has the conflict intensified, but more so the number of actors has multiplied — and it's affecting the areas where [non-government organisations] tend to be placed, in the urban and district centres," Ms Clark said.
"That sort of conflict is really tricky for humanitarian organisations.
"If you have to work in conflict, you want to work with conflict actors who have some measure of command and control, so if you go into an area you're not going to be ambushed by a sub-commander or a splinter group."
The uncertainty of who is in control reaches far beyond Kunduz, with some humanitarian groups temporarily closing down offices in other provinces.
The United Nations, which has offices in 13 out of the country's 34 provinces, closed its office in Baghlan province, south of Kunduz, and relocated some staff from at least one other provincial office in the north as a cautionary measure.
The World Food Program (WFP), which operates in all provinces, suspended food deliveries last month throughout Badakhshan province after five supply trucks and staff disappeared overnight.
The personnel were released safely the next day, but the food trucks were never recovered.
Wahidullah Amani, WFP spokesperson, said it had resumed only limited food deliveries to parts of Badakhshan — considered one of the most "food insecure" zones in the country — despite the approaching winter that will see many villages cut off from supplies for up to six months.