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Herat: The human consequences

By Lynn Yoshikawa
It’s my first time to Herat, a 2,500-year-old city in Afghanistan’s “wild west.” Compared to other Afghan cities, it certainly feels wealthier and is better organized with its tree-lined avenues and stoplights, which are actually respected by drivers and motorcyclists. Despite some semblance of order, criminality and the drug trade abounds and insecurity looms just outside the city limits.

My colleague and I traveled to Guzara, about an hour outside Herat City, where forty displaced families arrived in February. They came from eastern Badghis, which has been the focus of military operations and airstrikes by coalition and Afghan forces against the Taliban over the past year. No humanitarian organizations have access to their area because of the insecurity.  

We sat under a tent in the middle of a field with a group of about ten men who told us their story. Surprisingly, they had returned from Pakistan only two years ago, drawn by stories of improvements in their homeland. The situation was anything but safe when they arrived.

Ordinary Afghans are trapped between military forces and the Taliban. One man named Enayatullah told us, “The coalition forces would surround our villages and at night, the Taliban would shoot at them from our village and then escape. The next day, the military would attack our village.”

They tried to stay in their homes amidst the airstrikes and would move temporarily with relatives in nearby villages. One village elder listed five villages where they sought refuge and said they even had to live in a cave. Soon, as one man said, “The airstrikes were everywhere and we had to leave.”        

About 200 villagers found transport, packed some blankets and only took the clothes on their back towards the relative safety of Herat. In Guzara, one villager had an acquaintance with Abdul Karim, the head of a shura, or local council, who provided them with land to stay on. Abdul Karim said, “I was a refugee in Iran for many years, so I know what it’s like to be a refugee.”

Locals immediately provided them with some tents and now, the Norwegian Refugee Council is providing more durable shelters and training to help women earn an income. Despite some assistance, the displaced families are just eating bread and tea. One displaced woman, Fatima, told us that many women are unable to breastfeed their infants.    

We are off to Mazar e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan next to see how the humanitarian community is responding to increasing insecurity and displacement.  The U.S. military surge in the south has been pushing armed groups to previously stable areas like the north and west, setting off local rivalries and violent struggles for power. As we saw in Herat, there are likely similar gaps in the humanitarian response in the north. If this isn’t addressed soon, there will certainly be serious human consequences for Afghans, and the future of their country.

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