Hours before a mortar round struck his house on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s northern city of Kunduz, Nasim, a 48-year-old fruit seller, got a call from his wife.
“She asked me not to come home,” said Nasim, who has only one name. She was worried that he would be captured by Taliban insurgents who had seized the area and were mounting a push to retake Kunduz.
Nasim did not see her again. The mortar that crashed into their house this week killed his wife, Zarimah, a mother of 10.
“My life is destroyed,” Nasim said by phone from Kunduz.
Afghan forces are again locked in a fierce battle for control of the country’s fifth-largest city that has sent thousands of residents fleeing, killed or injured untold numbers of civilians and illustrated the Taliban’s resiliency in northern Afghanistan 15 years after the U.S.-led military invasion.
Taliban militants briefly seized Kunduz last year before Afghan forces regained control with the help of U.S. airstrikes – including a mistaken strike against a Doctors Without Borders hospital that killed 42 people – and a small number of ground troops.
The Taliban has spent the past several months consolidating its hold over outlying districts before beginning a fresh offensive this week against the center of the city of more than 250,000 people.
Afghan forces were holding off the militants Friday, but humanitarian groups warned that civilians were at growing risk as fighting spread to civilian areas.
“Civilians in Kunduz are once again at a precipice, and time is running out,” said Champa Patel, the group’s South Asia director.
Dominic Parker, head of the U.N. humanitarian office in Afghanistan, said families fleeing Kunduz were at grave risk.
“Many families were unable to bring their possessions with them and are in a precarious position,” Parker said. “We have had reports that some families have been forced to sleep out in the open and many have few food supplies.”
International humanitarian law prohibits attacks against civilian areas, and Amnesty said “those suspected of criminal responsibility must be brought to justice in fair trials.”
It was not possible to ascertain the source of the mortar shell that struck Nasim’s house Tuesday evening, the second day of fighting. He believes it was fired by Afghan forces seeking to dislodge the Taliban from the village known as Sesad Family, which the militants had seized earlier that day.
Miraculously, his children survived the attack. But clashes in Kunduz made it impossible for Nasim to return home Wednesday.
He asked elders in the village to bury his wife immediately, as Islamic custom requires, and to bring his children to Kunduz.
On Thursday, during a lull in the fighting, he traveled to the village. At his house, he found a scene of horror.
One room had collapsed from the impact of the mortar attack; his wife had been sitting there. Nasim said he broke down in tears.
Four of his neighbors had also been killed in the fighting, he said. Shelling on Wednesday claimed the livestock and chickens the family relied upon for additional income.
“I’m looking at the body of my neighbor, thinking of his burial,” Nasim said, raising his voice above the din of occasional gunfire. “But we can’t bury them because of the fighting.”
Nasim was preparing to take his children to the neighboring province of Takhar and on to Kabul, where one of his sons served in the Afghan army. He said he would immediately make plans to leave Afghanistan, joining an exodus that has accelerated over the last year.
More than 277,000 Afghans have fled their homes this year, according to the United Nations humanitarian office. They join more than 1.2 million Afghans displaced from their homes and millions more who have left the country.
Human rights advocates assailed the announcement this week that the Afghan government would take back Afghan asylum seekers who were deported by the European Union. Reports said that Afghan cooperation in reducing the numbers of migrants arriving on European shores was a condition of the $15.2 billion in international aid that donor countries, at a conference this week in Brussels, pledged to provide Afghanistan over the next four years.
Nearly 200,000 Afghans applied for asylum in the European Union last year, second only to Syria. Despite the worsening conflict, European countries have said that Afghanistan does not meet the technical definition of a war zone, making it easier to deport asylum seekers.
“International assistance should be granted on the basis of necessity rather than political expediency aimed at absolving EU governments of their obligation to asylum seekers,” Patel said.
Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
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