Afghan security forces are battling to regain control of the city of Kunduz from the Taliban for the sixth straight day. The fight has brought the city to a standstill as people suffer from shortages of food, water, electricity and medical supplies.
Kunduz's 300,000 residents are left in fear that their city could once again fall to the Taliban. Kunduz became the first urban centre to fall into Taliban hands for 15 days in September 2015; the city has come under attack four times during the past year..
For Afghanistan, the fight for the northern city is seen as evidence of the government's weakened writ at a time when the Taliban continue to make territorial gains. It has been fifteen years since US invaded Afghanistan and the armed group is still a potent threat to sovereignty, attacking areas in the north and south.
Despite government claims that more than 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the first three days of fighting, Amruddin Wali, a local representative, says the group has a presence in as much as 80 percent of Kunduz City.
Wali's claim is in stark contrast to comments Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the unity government, made to CNN.
"Most parts of Kunduz are under government control," Abdullah said during an interview on Thursday.
Residents, however, say the current assault on Kunduz has turned the city into a ghost town.
"It's as if the bullets are raining from the sky. The dead and the injured have been left on the streets," Khaled Samimi, a resident of the Bala Hisar area, told TRT World.
The days of fighting have left people with severe shortages.
"When the fighting stops, even for a few minutes, we go out and search for food and water," Samimi said.
Wali warns of a potential crisis if the fighting continues. "Civilians will continue to die and Kunduz will become the site of a human tragedy," said Wali.
Danger in the streets, on the roads
Naser Mobarez, whose house is located near the city's main hospital, said he tried to wait out the fighting. Within 24 hours, the violence proved too much for him and his family.
By the morning of October 5, Mobarez decided to take his chances on the road. He packed his family in his car and made the three-hour journey to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Even on the road, the danger did not dissipate, said Mobarez.
Along the way, he encountered bodies — of combatants and civilians — and Taliban checkpoints. With Taliban fighters crouching under trees and firing from the roadside, Mobarez knows he's lucky to have made it out alive.
"I knew that any of us in the car could have lost our lives, but it was just as risky to stay in the city, we had to leave."
The United Nations estimates as many as 10,000 people have fled the city since fighting broke out on October 3. They have sought refuge in nearby provinces — Takhar, Badakhshan and Balkh. Some have even managed to make the seven-hour journey to Kabul, but tens of thousands more are trapped.
Those who are unable to make it out of the city are stuck in what Amnesty International has called "increasingly dire" conditions.
Amnesty warned of severe consequences if aid does not reach residents still in the city.
"Civilians in Kunduz are once again at a precipice, and time is running out. Unless all parties to the conflict permit a humanitarian corridor to allow vital aid in and people to flee, we could soon be looking at a devastating humanitarian crisis," Champa Patel, the South Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement released Thursday.
The government has yet to provide official statistics on the dead and injured. However, Marzia Yaftali Salaam, head doctor at the Kunduz Regional Hospital, told TRT World that at least 232 people — mostly civilians — have been brought to the facility in the past five days.
With no aid deliveries into the city since fighting broke out earlier this week, the hospital is quickly running out of supplies. Additional supplies and personnel have been gathered in neighbouring provinces, but cannot be flown into Kunduz under the current circumstances.
As the only medical facility currently operating in the city, staff have been overstretched and have found little time to rest.
Salaam said the hospital is further hindered by the fact that up to 70 percent of the facility's staff has fled the city.
A doctor speaking to Amnesty said the hospital is also being "harassed" by Taliban, who are demanding aid for their injured fighters.
"The Taliban are calling [the hospital] and asking doctors to provide them with medical equipment or threatening them [ordering them], to come to the front line and treat their wounded soldiers," the doctor told Amnesty.
The spillover from the clashes forced the hospital staff, including doctors, to abandon their work at least once on the evening of October 5.
The nature of the fighting, an assault on the country's fifth-largest city, has led to a gruesome impasse — civilians are more susceptible, but roads leading to the hospital are too dangerous for cars or ambulances to cross.
"If people aren't dying in the fighting, the lack of food, water and medical supplies is killing them," said Abdul Mateen.
Residents said Taliban fighters have been using civilian residences, businesses and even the basements of local mosques to launch their attacks.
ANDSF defeating Taliban attempts to take Kunduz. AFG Commandos continue to clear isolated pockets of TB w/ more ANDSF deploying to assist.— Resolute Support (@ResoluteSupport) October 6, 2016
A health official, who is not authorised to speak to the media, said on October 5 two mortars and a rocket landed near the hospital. He said "a few patients" were wounded.
A civilian speaking to Amnesty said the rockets were fired by the Taliban.
The army has been careful to avoid launching air and mortar strikes — a definitive tactic in the fight against the Taliban when Kunduz fell last year — in civilian areas.
However, residents speaking to TRT World said they have come under fire indiscriminately.
"Crimes are being committed by both sides. People are dying, houses and markets are burning, but none of it is exposed […] Even the government bombs the city like there are only Taliban here," said Mohammad Maruf, another Kunduz resident.
The security forces have denied that they have targeted civilians, but admit that operations in urban areas present a unique challenge.
Waiting for support
In a voice message to TRT World, an Army commander stationed in the north of the city, said his forces are also faced with shortages.
"We are surrounded from all four sides, we have no more ammunition, and cannot continue to resist," said Noor Mohammad.
In several battles over the last two years, Afghan military and police have said they were left waiting for backup that did not arrive. They complained that they are not given proper supplies, including ammunition and food.
Peter Cook, the press secretary for the United States Department of Defense, said Kunduz "is absolutely a dangerous situation in Afghanistan, a challenging situation for the Afghan government, certainly for the Afghan forces."
However, he did not provide details of the kind of assistance the US has provided the Afghan forces to deal with the siege.
The US-backed coalition transitioned to a training role in 2014 when the bulk of international troops began their withdrawal from the country. Afghan National Security Forces since then have taken the lead in the fight against the armed opposition.
The coalition, now known as Resolute Support, did report participating in "two air engagements to defend friendly forces who were receiving enemy fire" on Wednesday.
Harkening to recent Taliban offensives, Noor Mohammad said other checkpoints have already been turned over to the opposition fighters.
"I have no choice but to surrender and die here with my men."
Author: Ali M Latifi and Ehsanullah Ehsan
Ehsan reported from Mazar-e Sharif