Arzo, Afghanistan – When Muhammad Akram Sharifi returned to the village he was forced to flee a year ago, he was devastated. The mosques, schools and shops in the market were all in ruins. So was his house.
“My kids, my grandchildren – 22 people lived here,” Mr Sharifi said last week. “And now it has been reduced to rubble. My pocket is empty. What do we do? “
It is impossible to say how much ammunition was spent on the war between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the village of Arjo. It is a dustbin of about 300 houses located on a rolling hill. But it is also a strategic entry point into the city of Ghazni, rewarding the long war in Afghanistan.
Bullet holes and grooved structures are visible at every turn. Destruction is everywhere, seemingly frozen.
Most of Arjo’s residents fled before the war began. But according to Haji Shahadullah and other villagers, crossfire and explosions have killed civilians and injured at least 600 in the past 15 months. Among the dead were his two children.
After the victory of the Taliban, it is uncertain what will happen next for the people of Arjo. International aid money has been frozen in Afghanistan, and the new government’s ability to provide public services – let alone rebuild villages like Arjo that were virtually destroyed in the war – has not been proven. Residents say food is starting to become harder to find.
In the summer, when the Taliban advanced rapidly across the country, many villages and towns were handed over without a fight. Local contracts were cut, weapons and ammunition were taken and troops were sent home.
But other places turned into flash points, including Arjo, a village six miles southwest of the provincial capital Ghazni. And when they did, the chronic stalemate took a huge human and material toll.
The war is much calmer now, areas of the country that were previously limited are now accessible. Places like Arzo, once home to more than 10,000 inhabitants, give a glimpse of how the recently ended wars were conducted.
“A few years ago an army base was occupied nearby,” Mr. Sharifi recalls. “They rebuilt it next to my house. The Taliban fought from my house and dug tunnels in other houses so that they could roam in the unknown.
The village of Arjo is located on a major artery connecting Ghazni and Paktika provinces. Fazel Karim, headmaster of a local boys’ school, explained that it was a lifeline for the southeastern provinces and that the Afghan government wanted to keep it open at all costs.
Which left the village behind the Taliban.
Mr Karim Karim’s school paid a special price in the days before the fall of Ghazni city on August 12 as government forces excavated it.
“They have built army bases along the route, many of them on private land,” he said. “An outpost was built just outside the school walls.”
On a recent inspection, workers were found to be working on a reconstruction of one of these walls.
One man said the Taliban had taken up positions inside the compound, digging a tunnel that passed in front of the military base. Insurgents often used that tactic to attack many Afghan security outposts. In the yard, a dump of dust and rocks was visible where the entrance to the 10 feet wide tunnel was.
Mr Karim Karim said that when the security situation in Arjo began to deteriorate, the education department decided to move the classes to a village near the town.
“The Taliban entered the school and started fighting from here,” he said. “As a result, the whole school was destroyed. In early August, a bomb was dropped from the air and hit one of our classrooms.
After the new Taliban government announced the reopening of schools, classes returned to the destroyed premises and students began to return.
“Not all of our 1,100 sons are still here, because some families are still displaced,” Karim said. “Not everyone came back.” Girls’ schools have also reopened, but only until the sixth grade.
In a local mosque, the smell of fresh paint lingers. Inside, the villagers spoke of the challenges they endured.
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Sharifi said food prices have doubled in the past few weeks. Many items are not found in the village, and people have had to travel to the city to try to find them. The flour crisis is the biggest concern for the villagers. With prices rising so fast, many shopkeepers have stopped buying it themselves.
In Ghazni, outside the governor’s compound, burqa-clad women lined up to register for government assistance. They said the Taliban had announced that women were not allowed outside without male relatives, but had launched a campaign through the city that many had ignored the directive.
Ghazni is an important center connecting Kabul to the south and west of the country. It once served as the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire, which stretched from modern Iran to the Indian subcontinent in the eleventh century. Most recently, US Special Forces were deployed after the Taliban launched a surprise attack on the city in August 2011. The U.S. military has promised ground troops one last time to stop Taliban attacks.
At a police station at the foot of Ghazni’s valuable fort, a Taliban member, who identified himself only as Omar, was at a gathering of comrades after the noon prayers. He said he was at war for Arjo.
“I started a jihad against the Americans 16 years ago – now I’m 31,” he said proudly as he scrolled through the pictures and videos on the roof with a Russian Marx rifle.
As seen in a video, half a dozen Afghan soldiers have died on the streets, their cars smoking.
“We attacked them near Arjo,” Omar said. “Everyone in that village knows me.”
The gravel roads of Arjo, lined with mud brick houses where many deaths and destruction have taken place in the last few months, are slowly returning to life. Residents are dribbling again, many of them working to rebuild what was lost. Young and old are moving, lifting iron buckets and packing layers on top of mortar layers.
He said Mr Sharifi built his house in Arjo 15 years ago. Last week, he saw its wreckage from the top of another pile of rubble.
“Then,” he said, “there was money, there were jobs. Now we have nothing.”