Afghans who fled Panjshir: ‘Everything can change by the hour’

As resistance forces continue to battle the Taliban on Afghanistan’s last war front, residents who fled the province say there is no clear winner yet.

Afghanistan's anti-Taliban forces stand on the back of a pickup truck as they gather in Abshar district, Panjshir province [File: Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP]

Kabul, Afghanistan – Since the Taliban claimed “complete control” over the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan’s northeast earlier this month, the group has been accused of “widespread atrocities”, forcing many Afghans to flee the province – the last remaining enclave of resistance against the group’s rule.

“We didn’t even know what was happening in the next village,” said a government worker who managed to flee the province six days ago. Like other sources Al Jazeera spoke to, he did not want to reveal his identity for fears of retribution.

For nearly a month now, Panjshir’s towering mountains and sprawling valleys have been a black hole of information in Afghanistan, with the National Resistance Front (NRF) and the Taliban battling for the control of the country’s last holdout resisting the Taliban’s sweeping takeover.

Though hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the country and abroad have placed their hopes in the lush province, the 100,000-plus Panjshir residents themselves have had little chance to tell the story of what transpired in their homes and villages over the last several weeks.

‘Everything can change by the hour’

In late August, as the battles were heating up, the Taliban cut off internet and mobile phone services in the province, effectively cutting off the residents not only from the rest of the country and the world, but also from themselves.

After weeks of intense fighting, the Taliban on September 6 claimed its control over Panjshir Valley. But the NRF, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of slain commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has pledged to keep fighting.

Though Panjshir’s residents support the resistance and have a special reverence for the father and the son, the fighting has taken a substantial toll on a province that is heavily reliant on the transit of goods and visitors from Kabul.

When the fighting was at its worst, residents told Al Jazeera the Taliban stacked shipping containers at the entrance gates of the province in a bid to regulate who made it in or out.

“Everything can change by the hour,” the government worker said of the fierce battles between the Taliban and the resistance force.

With the province cut off both physically – by mountains and valleys – and technologically, the people of Panjshir have not yet been able to gauge the true strength of either side, said the government worker.

The NRF says it has “thousands” of fighters from across the country fighting alongside them. It even claims to have captured 1,500 Taliban members.

Panjshir residents who spoke to Al Jazeera said the number of Taliban fighters dispatched from across the country is not clear. With the information blackout, numbers touted by both sides have proven difficult to verify.

“No one in Panjshir has any certainty about what’s going on,” said the government worker.

The Taliban has been accused by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh of using civilians to clear landmines. Rights groups have also accused the group of committing summary executions in the province.

The Taliban has denied the charges.

‘No proof’

“Many countries were propagating about atrocities in Panjshir but there is no proof,” Anas Haqqani of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban ally, told Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid on Thursday.

Haqqani said his friend, who is a diplomat in Panjshir, told him “everything was fine”. Still, he said his diplomat friend “received [a] message from the [US] State Department to investigate massacres”.

“He told them there is nothing here,” Haqqani told Al Jazeera.

“There are countries who do not want to see stability and peace in Afghanistan. Their hatred of Afghanistan is causing them to spread lies and rumours.”

Earlier this week, Zabihullah Mujahid, deputy minister of information and culture, also said journalists and rights workers will be granted access to conduct investigations in the province.

However, journalists who spoke to Al Jazeera said they have faced great difficulties in getting into Panjshir.

Patricia Gossman, associate director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban must follow through with its promise and allow for an independent fact-finding mission to look into the charges against the group.

“Without a credible investigation, disputed claims and grievances will grow, and victims of abuse by all parties will be left without answers or justice,” Gossman told Al Jazeera.

Panjshir residents also said they could not verify the accusations of mass killings, but agreed with Gossman that there should be an inquiry into the charges. The government worker said he first heard of the reports of large-scale killings when he arrived in Kabul.

“I saw it online like everyone else,” he said.

NRF supporters have made repeated claims of a “genocide” in the province. However, the government worker said he can only attest to what he saw in his area.

“We don’t know where there is a war, where there is peace. We have no idea what our own people are going through,” he told Al Jazeera. “For every true thing on the internet, there are 100 other false reports.”

The government worker, however, said the volatility of the situation in Panjshir could have resulted in mass killings.

“In Panjshir, any area could turn into a war zone at a moment’s notice.”

Economic crisis

The government worker said people in Panjshir are struggling to find even basic goods. Stories have run out of stock in recent days.

He said even procuring something as simple as sugar has turned into a hunt across largely empty shops.

“There was only one store that still had sugar, and even that was 600 Afghanis [$7] for seven kilos.” For context, that is more than double the price in cities such as Kabul.

Currently, Afghanistan is facing a liquidity crisis and inflation after the international bodies cut off the government’s access to funds since the Taliban took over.

The blockade could worsen the humanitarian crisis in Panjshir.

A doctor who spoke to Al Jazeera said hospitals in the provincial capital, Bazarak, have either been forced to close or are operating with limited supplies.

The doctor said an Italian-run emergency hospital is the only fully functional health facility in the province.

“We could only treat people with what we had at our disposal, with only the most basic of medications and some supplies for bandaging and suturing.”

Panjshir residents told Al Jazeera that electricity has been cut off in much of the province in recent weeks.

The doctor said lack of electricity is adding to the difficulty of treating patients. He said one of his family members was injured in a crossfire and he struggled to find supplies to treat his wound.

“Imagine how many injured people are going untreated, or worse, how many are dying from something that could ordinarily be treated easily,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera