‘Life destroyed’: Afghan civilians describe alleged border raids

People in Khost province say those killed in cross-border air raids were civilians as Pakistan yet to confirm if it was behind the deadly attacks.

Khost air strike survivors
The air raids killed dozens of people, including children, according to officials [Al Jazeera]

Spera, Khost – Much like every other morning last week, 25-year-old Peer Jannat religiously woke up at 2.30am on April 16 to prepare for Sehri (Suhoor) – a pre-dawn meal Muslims consume ahead of their daily fasts in the holy month of Ramadan.

“Just as we were sitting down, we heard sounds of drones followed by sounds of jets … seconds later we heard an explosion. They [Pakistan military] were bombing us,” Jannat, a resident of Afghan-Dubai [the name is a reference to the many families that often send members to the Gulf nation for work] in Khost, an Afghan province that lies along the border with Pakistan, told Al Jazeera.

At least 47 people died, including 20 children, in air raids carried out in three villages of the Spera district of Khost, as well as in Chogam village in the Sheltan district of Kunar, according to locals and Taliban officials. Both provinces lie on the 2,700-km- (1677-mile-) border with Pakistan.

“In Khost, 12 girls and three boys were killed; in Kunar, three girls and two boys were killed,” said Mohamed Ag Ayoya, an Afghan UNICEF representative, adding that the children were “killed in their homes as they slept”.

The Taliban blamed Pakistan for the deadly raids but the Pakistani government has maintained silence. Its embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, denied Islamabad was behind the border attacks.

“In our area, they targeted two places, and bombarded three more places in the next village. Dozens of people were killed, many of them women and children … in some families only a child survived,” Jannat said, frustration evident in his voice.

On what was meant to be a day of prayer and fasting, Jannat recalled spending the next six to eight hours digging survivors out of the rubble of their homes. “Five homes were destroyed in just our neighbourhood; they were completely flattened, burying entire families within them,” he said, adding that other homes, including his own, suffered much damage.

“We didn’t have resources to help our neighbours, to extract them from their destroyed homes. People from neighbouring villages came to help us,” he said.

Jannat witnessed similar scenes when he went to help families in the nearby villages of Mersaper and Konai. “Aside from human lives, people’s homes, cattle and vehicles have also been destroyed,” he said, adding that these also included transport vehicles used by locals for trade.

Many families in Khost rely on agriculture and livestock-rearing to earn a living. However, Khost is also a significant border port and, thus, an important trading province. “For many, their livelihoods are lost,” Jannat said.

Khost air strike survivors
Doctors said they struggled to treat victims of the attacks due to a lack of resources [Al Jazeera]

At the local clinics, doctors said they struggled to provide emergency support due to lack of resources, as the country’s economy has almost collapsed due to the halting of aid and US sanctions slapped following the Taliban’s takeover of the country last August.

“We have received many casualties from the recent bombardments, and we are stretched thin without enough personnel or supplies. We are not in the same position or capacity we were last year,” said one doctor from a clinic in Khost who did not wish to be named.

Afghanistan’s healthcare sector, particularly in the remote districts, has been a casualty of the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded since the Taliban’s return to power. Foreign aid critical for the economy has dried up after the West imposed additional sanctions and the country was cut off from international financial institutions.

“People with injuries are discharged after basic treatment because we don’t have enough facilities. In critical cases, we refer them to private hospitals, but not everyone can afford to receive treatments there,” he added.

The Taliban announced financial support of 20,000 afghanis (approximately $230) to affected families, but experts say it is not enough to cover the loss of property and livelihood. Its spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in a strongly-worded statement warned Islamabad of “bad consequences” if Afghan “territory and freedom” was “disrespected” again.

On Saturday, Taliban authorities summoned a Pakistani envoy in Kabul to protest against the strikes.

The Taliban has stressed it wants to resolve the issue through “political means” but the rise in border attacks originating from Afghanistan since the group took power has caused tensions between the two neighbours.

The attacks, which Islamabad has not confirmed, sparked protests in the cities of Khost and Kandahar, with security experts labelling them an assault on Afghan sovereignty.

“Countries often agree on military operations, including counterinsurgency. However, we do not know if Pakistan and Taliban have signed such an agreement,” Said Sabir Ibrahimi, an Afghan analyst and non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, told Al Jazeera.

“Pakistan does not seem to have followed any of the rules and international norms and thus violated Afghanistan’s sovereignty,” he said.

Pakistan has led the way in pressing the international community to engage with the Taliban-led Afghan government, which is yet to be recognised by any country.

But Islamabad has accused the Taliban of sheltering rebels as the frequency of attacks has increased.

In a statement, issued the day after the air raids, Pakistan’s foreign ministry, without referencing the Afghan civilian casualties, said, “Unfortunately, elements of banned terrorist groups in the border region, including TTP [Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan], have continued to attack Pakistan’s border security posts, resulting in the martyrdom of several Pakistani troops.”

The statement also urged the Taliban to secure the Pakistan-Afghan border region and “take stern actions against the individuals involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan”.

But the Afghan rulers have denied providing safe haven to TTP fighters, many of whom fled to Afghanistan after Pakistani military operations using the porous border between the two countries. The TTP has carried out multiple attacks in Pakistan in the last 15 years.

Locals residents in Khost also insisted that their settlement did not house any rebels.

“Personally, I don’t know anyone who is part of TTP here. Residents are civilians who have been running from violence. In fact, most of the victims were women and children,” Jannat told Al Jazeera.

As a resident of the Afghan-Dubai area in Khost, Jannat was accustomed to border clashes that frequently erupted.

“This place is very close to the Zero Point (shared border regions), and there are Pakistani army outposts nearby, and in the past there has been shelling that claimed lives,” he said.

Locals living by the border region had hoped that clashes would abate after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Instead, tensions have been escalating steadily, experts have observed.

Another point of friction is the building of a border fence by Pakistan for which Taliban officials have expressed their displeasure.

“It is not surprising that the Taliban cannot secure Afghanistan’s borders,” Ibrahimi said, pointing out that while cross-border attacks from Pakistan are not new, the Taliban lack the political and military will to hold Pakistan responsible.

Back in Afghan-Dubai, Jannat lamented the fate of Afghans caught between the repeated cycles of conflict as he shared the photos of mass graves that he helped dig earlier.

“Most people in this area are refugees who fled from North Waziristan due to the Pakistani’s military operations there. One of them who was injured in this strike lost every member of his family. He is alone in a hospital, his whole life destroyed,” Jannat added, his voice heavy with emotion.

Additional reporting by a journalist based in Khost

Source: Al Jazeera