That civilians must die as the price of war is a given here. Except for those directly affected, people just shrug about the casualties.
Kodir and his neighbor, Abdul Khalik, placed their hands about two feet above the ground to show the height of some of the children who died Saturday night when U.S. bombs fell on their village, Chorikori.
Among those who were buried that night were two entire families, one of 16 members and the other of 14, who lived, and perished, together in the same house.
“There are no fighters there, only peaceful civilians,” said Kodir, 35, one of scores of refugees fleeing the fighting near the northern city of Kunduz, one of the Taliban’s last holdouts. “We’re fed up with this bombing. Let them bomb fighters but not innocent people.”
Farther down the road, Abdul Malik, 42, took the opposite view.
“I was always against the Taliban. They destroyed our country. They destroyed our schools. They destroyed everything,” he said.
The bombing, he concluded, is a good thing. No matter that some civilians died, the main thing was that many more Taliban must have been killed.
“The Americans were bombing very heavily last night. It’s a good thing that they’re killing the Taliban. Naturally, some peaceful people were killed. I think about 100 peaceful people died last night,” he said, without emotion.
Anti-Taliban forces have declared victory across much of Afghanistan, but the war that persists in this northern pocket continues to claim civilian lives. Refugees along the road from the front-line town of Khanabad east to Taloqan gave consistent reports Sunday of dozens of civilian casualties in several villages.
“A lot of people died. Only peaceful people died,” said Shiringil, a 50-year-old refugee woman with 10 children, who joined the trek.
For much of the war, U.S. bombs had fallen on Taliban-controlled territory that was not readily accessible to journalists who could observe and report on casualties. The Pentagon says it is not targeting civilians but has acknowledged bombing mistakes that damaged a Red Cross compound and residential areas in recent weeks.
Kunduz and the surrounding province, a strongly pro-Taliban area, is one of the last areas where the Taliban had refused to give in despite heavy U.S. bombing. On Sunday, there were reports that the fighters were trying to strike a deal to surrender, but they attached conditions that were unacceptable to the Northern Alliance.
Kodir said there were many Taliban troops in the area. “They didn’t touch anyone,” he said, as he walked toward safety with his 1-year-old daughter, Zuhal, on his back. “They offended no one.” Having just crossed from Taliban territory to Northern Alliance country, he did not want to say which side he supported, if either.
The town of Taloqan fell to the Northern Alliance about a week ago without a fight. Two days later Northern Alliance fighters advanced toward Kunduz, expecting a similar surrender, and walked into a wall of gunfire, which cost them dozens of lives.
Gen. Kadamshoh, 36, perched atop a hill surveying the front line, claimed that 60,000 Northern Alliance troops surrounded the estimated 20,000 Taliban fighters in the area--figures that could not be verified.
Among those trapped, he said, were two Taliban commanders from distant Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, who had traveled north to fight and had then been swept toward Kunduz in the recent Northern Alliance advances.
There is a tense standoff on the ground now, while U.S. assaults from the air grow more intense.
The bomb strikes that began Saturday sent people fleeing Khanabad, said refugee Mohammad Rasul, 18.
“We ourselves buried 11 people. We pulled them out of the ruins, and we buried them,” he said Sunday, explaining that they were neighbors whose house was hit by bombs. “About 100 people were killed yesterday and today.” In Afghanistan, estimates of numbers and people’s ages are often off target.
Faziljan, 28, leading a unit of alliance fighters near the front, shrugged at the claims of civilian casualties.
“It’s usual for 20 or 30 or 40 people to die in battle. It happens,” he said.
One group of people from a Taliban-occupied village in the area had to sleep in the hills Saturday night after bombing prevented them from returning to their homes. Sakhi, 12, and Piruz, 10, were both at school when the bombing started. One of the men, Mohammed Murod, 36, feared for the safety of his family.
To hide from the U.S. bombs, the Taliban fighters take over houses and mosques, driving out their inhabitants, according to refugees from the Taliban-held area near Kunduz. They also smear their armored vehicles, trucks and vans with mud to provide camouflage in the dun-colored landscape.
“They come into houses and terrorize people. When they see planes preparing to deliver bomb strikes, they hide in people’s houses,” Murod said. “They chase people out and shelter there, and then they go back to the front line.”
In radio contact with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban remained defiant, said Faziljan, the alliance commander.
“They say the American airstrikes didn’t affect them at all,” he said. “They say, ‘You’re infidels, you’re not real Muslims. You bring the Americans to kill other Muslims.’ ”
Alliance fighters who joined refugees along the road from Khanabad to Taloqan triumphantly bore a trophy of war. It was a human being, Ali Rizo, 22, from Lahore, Pakistan, who came to Afghanistan two months ago to fight.
He told them he was duped: He thought he was going to Kashmir, the disputed territory along his country’s border with India.
He knows he is in a terrible spot. He has no translator, but it’s written in his face. He knows his captors could shoot him at any time.
“He is very dangerous. He’s a good fighter,” said Hamid, 20, one of the men leading Rizo along the road.
Five other Pakistanis were killed in a battle in the village of Gulbulogh, in the Kunduz area, five days ago, the fighters said.
Rizo was taken prisoner, with the aim of displaying him to passing journalists.
One of the fighters leading him was Mullah Fazil, 28.
Fazil demanded money for the interview and was crestfallen at a refusal.
If there was no profit in taking prisoners, then what was the point?
“The next time we won’t bother. We’ll just shoot them on the spot,” he said.
In the background, Rizo leaned against a car, waiting for the conversation to end, his head buried in his hands.
Glancing up, his eyes were filled with fear.