KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – When the Taliban descended a month ago on Dam Shakh, a hamlet on the wheat-growing plains of northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, nobody was prepared.
"They turned up suddenly and took us completely by surprise," said resident Ghulam Sakhi of the night of April 24 when hundreds of Taliban militants launched a coordinated attack. "It was horrific. People just started running away as fast as they could and for those who stayed, we were on our own for 10 days. The government just couldn't cope."
Military and intelligence authorities were equally surprised. Armed gunmen took over homes and used residents as human shields. Army reinforcements didn't arrive for days and then lacked supplies — ammunition, food, fuel — because of poor logistics, Gov. Mohammad Omer Safi said. As government forces rallied their defenses, the fighting raged for more than two weeks as the militants came within three kilometers (less than 2 miles) of the provincial capital, Kunduz city, Safi said.
For now, the city of Kunduz appears secured. A combined force of government troops and hastily recruited militiamen has pushed managed to push back the insurgents to Gor Tepa, some 15 kilometers (12 miles) from Kunduz city, and liberated occupied villages and hamlets such as Talawka and Dam Shakh.
But the battle continues and Afghan officials concede it will be slow, bloody work to dislodge the insurgents much further. In the meantime, the region's civilian population will bear the brunt of living on Afghanistan's new northern front line. Already more than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, many renting houses or staying with other families and receiving assistance from U.N. agencies and other charities.
The presence of civilians across the battle zone is one of the main factors hindering the tactics and progress of government forces. Officials say that army operations are hampered not only by poor equipment and lack of air support, but by the presence of the militants in people's homes, and fears that fighting in rural districts could set fire to the wheat crop now ready for harvest.
Provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Sabor Nasrati conceded that "progress is slow."
"To avoid civilian casualties we can't use heavy artillery and we don't have air support" since the departure last year of international combat troops as the U.S. and NATO operations moved to a training and support role. "It makes our men on the ground extra careful and slows the operation."
A total of 204 war-wounded were admitted to Kunduz's only trauma hospital, run by French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres, between April 24, when the assault kicked off the Taliban's annual warm-weather offensive, and May 11, said project coordinator Laurent Gabriel. "In just one week, May 11-17, 84 people arrived with war wounds, double the number in the same week last year," he said.
The hospital's wards tell the tale of the past month's violence.
Seventeen-year-old Nasrullah was walking home from school on May 17 when he was caught in crossfire in the Iman Sahib district north of the city — scene of some of the worst fighting. "I heard the gunfire, but it slowed down and I thought it was ok to keep walking along the road," said Nasrullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. He took three bullets in his left leg — now pinned and hoisted — and one in his right leg.
In the opposite bed, 18-year-old policeman Abdullah Raouf is recovering from a May 19 mortar attack in Gor Tepa. Still dazed from surgery, he was unable to talk as two male relatives said both legs and his right shoulder were wounded.
In areas returned to government control, a tense and uncertain peace prevails. The militias in mufti outnumber the army. Military Humvees and armored police vehicles come and go sporadically, and soldiers sit in watchtowers reinforced with dirt-filled Hesco bags. In the fields, the wheat is cut into sheaves, and the occasional shop opens for the residents who are tentatively making a return to their damaged homes.
Residents of villages like Talawka, with 4,000 households and just a few kilometers from the front line at Gor Tepa, are not taking their shaky moment of respite for granted. Local militia groups were drafted for the front-line fight, some of them armed and paid by the provincial authorities. Now they patrol the cleared areas, walking in single file along the mud-brick walls of deserted compounds and through the shimmering wheat fields — their automatic rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns slung over baggy cotton shalwar khameez.
Mohammad Aslam welcomes the militiamen into his compound in Al-Chin, which he shared with the families of his five brothers until they found themselves on the front line of the newest war. Half the family compound was destroyed and most of the 40 residents fled. He remains with a couple of his young sons to tend the cows and donkeys tethered under a tree, and the chickens and ducks with their newly-hatched broods.
"We fought here for a week alone, we were surrounded, we fought until we ran out of ammunition," he said.
Now as he kicks the charred bricks and wood of a brother's house, Aslam worries that it will be a long time before lasting peace is assured.