Reduced to rubble, Afghan village struggles to rebuild

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ARZO, Afghanistan – When Muhammad Akram Sharifi returned to the village he was forced to flee over a year ago, he was devastated. The mosque, school, and bazaar stores were all in ruins. His house too.

“My children, my grandchildren – 22 people lived here,” Mr. Sharifi said last week. “And now everything is reduced to rubble. My pockets are empty. What are we going to do?”

It is impossible to say how much ammunition was spent in the fight between the Taliban and the Afghan government fighting for the village of Arzo. It is just a dusty village of about 300 houses perched on a rolling hill. But it is also a strategic entry point into the city of Ghazni, a prize of the long war in Afghanistan.

Bullet holes and collapsed structures are visible at every turn. Destruction is everywhere, seemingly frozen in time.

Most of the inhabitants of Arzo left before the fighting began. But according to Hajji Shahadullah and other villagers, 40 civilians have been killed and at least 60 have been injured in crossfire and explosions in the past 15 months. Among the dead were two of his children.

Once the Taliban are victorious, what will happen next to the people of Arzo is uncertain. International aid money to Afghanistan has been frozen and the new government’s ability to provide public services – let alone rebuild villages like Arzo which were all but destroyed in the fighting – is unproven. Food is starting to be harder to find, locals say.

When the Taliban made their rapid advance across the country during the summer, many villages and towns were delivered without a fight. Local agreements were made, arms and ammunition taken and soldiers sent home.

But other places have become hot spots, including Arzo, a village six miles southwest of the city of Ghazni, the provincial capital. And when they did, protracted standoffs took a huge human and material toll.

With the fighting now largely calm, areas of the country that were previously closed are now accessible. A visit to places like Arzo, which was once home to over 10,000 residents, offers insight into how the recently concluded battles have been fought.

“A nearby military base was invaded a few years ago,” Mr. Sharifi recalls. “They rebuilt it next to my house. The Taliban fought from my home and dug tunnels to other houses so they could move around undetected.

The village of Arzo is located on a main artery connecting the provinces of Ghazni and Paktika. It was a lifeline for the besieged southeastern provinces, and the Afghan government wanted to keep it open at all costs, said Fazel Karim, director of the local boys’ school.

This put the village in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

Mr. Karim’s school paid a particularly heavy price in the days leading up to the fall of the town of Ghazni on August 12 as government forces retreated.

“They built military bases along the road, many of them on private land,” he said. “An outpost was built just outside the school walls.

During a recent visit, we saw workers working on the reconstruction of one of these walls.

One of the men said the Taliban had taken up a position inside the premises, digging a tunnel that led to the military base in front. Insurgents have often used this tactic to attack the numerous outposts of the Afghan security forces. In the yard, a dump of dust and rocks was visible where a 10-foot-wide tunnel entrance once stood.

Mr. Karim said that when the security situation in Arzo started to deteriorate, the education department decided to move the classes to a village closer to the city.

“The Taliban entered the school and started the fight from here,” he said. “As a result, the whole school was destroyed. A bomb was dropped from the air in early August and hit one of our classrooms. The school’s corrugated iron roof is now crumpled like a gaping wound.

After the new Taliban government announced the reopening of schools, classes returned to the crumbling compound and students began to reenter. Rows of bicycles now line the bulging walls of the three squat buildings.

“Not all of our 1,100 boys are here yet because some families are still displaced,” Karim said. “Not everyone has come back.” The girls’ school also reopened, but only until the sixth grade.

In a local mosque, the smell of fresh paint lingered. Inside, villagers spoke of the challenges that persisted.

Mr Sharifi said food prices had doubled in recent weeks. Many items are not available in the villages, and people have had to travel to town to try and find them. Flour shortages were the main concern of the villagers. With prices rising so sharply, many traders had stopped buying them themselves.

In Ghazni, outside the governor’s compound, women in burqas lined up to ask for government help. They said the Taliban announced that women were not allowed to go out without a male relative, but a drive through the city revealed that many were ignoring the directive.

Ghazni is an important hub connecting Kabul to the south and west of the country. It was once the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire, which in the 11th century stretched from modern Iran to the Indian subcontinent. More recently, US special forces deployed here after the Taliban launched a surprise offensive in the city in August 2018. It was one of the last times the US military hired ground troops to stop a Taliban attack.

At a police station at the foot of the precious citadel of Ghazni, a Taliban member who identified himself only as Omar was at a gathering of fellow combatants after the midday prayer. He said he had been in battle for Arzo.

“I started jihad against Americans 16 years ago – now I’m 31,” he said, boasting as he scrolled through photos and videos of him posing on rooftops with his rifle of Russian sniper.

One video showed half a dozen Afghan soldiers dead on a road, their vehicles smoking.

“We ambushed them near Arzo,” Omar said. “Everyone in this village knows me.

The gravel roads of Arzo, lined with mud brick houses where so much death and destruction has transpired in recent months, are slowly coming back to life. Locals are returning, many of them struggling to rebuild what has been lost. Young and old alike shoveled, hoisted iron buckets and laid layers on layers of mortar.

Mr Sharifi built his house in Arzo 15 years ago, he said. Last week, he examined his remains from the top of another pile of rubble.

“At the time,” he says, “there was money, there were jobs. Now we have nothing.

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