Sakina, who is 11, maybe 12, walked with her family for 10 days after the Taliban seized her village in northern Afghanistan and burned down the local school.
They are now among around 50 families living in a makeshift camp on a rocky patch of land on the edge of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. They roast in plastic tents under scorching heat that reaches 44 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) at midday. There are no trees, and the only bathroom for the entire camp is a tattered tent pitched over a foul-smelling hole.
As the Taliban surge through northern Afghanistan — a traditional stronghold of U.S.-allied warlords and an area dominated by the country’s ethnic minorities — thousands of families like Sakina’s are fleeing their homes, fearful of living under the insurgents’ rule.
In the last 15 days, Taliban advances have driven more than 5,600 families from their homes, most of them in the northern reaches of the country, according to the government’s Refugee and Repatriations Ministry.
In Camp Istiqlal, family after family, all from the Hazara ethnic minority, told of Taliban commanders using heavy-handed tactics as they overran their towns and villages — raising doubts among many over their persistent promises amid negotiations that they will not repeat their harsh rule of the past.
Sakina said it was the middle of the night when her parents packed up their belongings and fled their village of Abdulgan in Balkh province, but not before the invading Taliban set fire to her school. Sakina said she doesn’t understand why her school was burned.
In Camp Istiqlal, there’s not a single light, and sometimes she hears noises in the pitch blackness of night. “I think maybe it’s the Taliban and they have come here. I am afraid,” said the girl, who hopes one day to be an engineer.
In areas they control, the Taliban have imposed their own fees and taxes.
The Taliban are attending international conferences, even sending their ex-ministers on missions to Afghanistan from Qatar, where they have a political office, to assure Afghans they have nothing to fear from them, especially minorities. The group still espouses Islamic rule but says its methods and tenets are less severe.
But if it’s a gentler face they are seeking to portray, fleeing residents say it seems many Taliban commanders in the field either haven’t gotten the message or aren’t listening.
A February 2020 agreement the Taliban signed with the United States reportedly prevents the insurgents from capturing provincial capitals. Yet two — Kandahar in the south and Badghis in the north — are under siege. In the capital of Kabul, where many fear an eventual Taliban assault, a rocket defense system has been installed, the Ministry of Interior said over the weekend. The statement offered no detail about its origin or cost.
The U.S., Russia, China, and even Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership council is headquartered, have all warned the Taliban against trying for a military victory, warning they will be international pariahs. Taliban leaders have vowed they are not doing so, even as they boast of their gains in recent meetings in Iran and in Russia.
Last week, President Joe Biden urged Afghanistan’s leaders to find unity and said it was up to Afghans to bring an end to decades of war. With 90% of the final U.S. and NATO withdrawal completed and its top commander Gen. Scott Miller having relinquished his command, Washington is nearing the end of its “forever war.”