KABUL, Afghanistan – When the Taliban stormed to power last month, one prized province refused to cower: the Panjshir Valley, a hub of hundreds of local fighters and former Afghan Special Forces soldiers who coalesced under the umbrella known as the National Resistance Front (NRF).
But it was not only the men who seemingly hit back.
“My whole family was there fighting – my husband, brothers, cousins, father-in-law, mother-in-law and myself,” Lailuma, 24, tells me defiantly from the tattered Kabul displacement camp on Saturday, having fled Panjshir a week earlier. “I fought them with stones.”
Other young women congregate around, concurring that they too joined the fight too, wielding stones instead of firearms.
Lailuma comes from Panjshir’s Anaba district and led a quiet life as a tailor before conflict broke out last month. She says the men in the village led them to the mountains as they were being attacked from the air in their homes, where she and her extended family subsisted. Yet after 10 days, she and 20 others from various villages trundled down in surrender.
Only when they returned to their homes, Lailuma continues, they were not permitted by their new rulers to turn on their lights or sit next to each other. And when they tried to run away, she tells me, the Taliban would open fire and warn them to stay put.
“They (the Taliban) would point their guns toward us and tell us not to go,” Lailuma recalls, stressing that they had to sneak on-foot for two hours between the array of mud huts and homes to finally reach their homes and abscond to Kabul.
Lailuma now lives in a squalid makeshift camp alongside thousands of other Afghans in a dusty park inside Kabul’s Police 17 district. It is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. Desperate mothers press their ill babies into your arms; dozens swarm to give out their phone numbers in the hopes some aid will come. Pink eye is evidently spreading like wildfire among the children who hack and wheeze, and countless numbers have lost limbs, parts of their face and no doubt their livelihoods at some point throughout Afghanistan’s decades of bloodshed.
The few latrines overflow, and there is no sign of water, food or medical assistance.
Lailuma says her husband is being treated at the nearby Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, having been shot in the hand during the daring Panjshir escape, and that she too was wounded by a shell that struck the back of her head.
As a crowd begins to form during my interview, an angry Taliban guard comes by and hoists his rifle into the air, barking at the growing cluster of sad, begging Afghans to disperse.
Only Lailuma isn’t taking any of it, arguing that she is the representative of the people and not the gun-wielding Talib. The two go back and forth in a heated argument as the guard mandates no cameras are allowed and purports to silence her from speaking to me further, to which Lailuma smugly responds that she and her Panjshiri “sisters” are the ones who already decided that they would not be filmed.
Moreover, Anisa, 45, weeps as she details how she lost her 18-year-old son Sakhi – who was engaged to be married – in the conflict sixteen days earlier.
“He died and we could not collect his body for two days,” she cries.
Anisa says she spent a night in the mountain, but retreated down unharmed.
While it is evident – having gone through the region just over a week ago – that the Taliban has conquered at least the main artery and infrastructure through all eight districts of the picturesque Panjshir, some fighting is said to be going on in the rugged mountains above under grave humanitarian concerns for the future of those still hiding throughout the caves and crevices.
Flanked by dozens of his robed Taliban fighters from Farah province 500 miles away, Commander Mawlawy Khalid minced no words that they were giving Panjshiris an ultimatum.
“We will give them a deadline, today or tomorrow or whenever (to surrender),” Khalid said, adding that whoever does not surrender “they shoot them dead.”
The process of surrender, according to Khalid, is that once weapons have been checked and handed over, the individual is then issued “a letter” indicating that they are “free” to return home as normal. Every high-ranking Taliban you meet says that they are urging residents to resume life as normal, only that remains a hard sell for fleeing families worn down by distrust and a dire economic situation.
Eighty miles from the capital, Panjshir has earned something of a mythological reputation over the years. First, it was the triumphant hub against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then the only Afghanistan province not to have fallen to the Taliban during its last rule from 1996 to 2001. Then, as the Taliban rapidly captured the country amid the twilight of the US withdrawal, Panjshir served as the last bastion of anti-Taliban resistance.
Almost every shop alongside the main, dusty road that snakes through the province appears intact yet shuttered.
Since the conflict inside the enclave gained momentum a week after the Kabul fall on August 15, claims from both sides became almost impossible to verify. Much of the information vacuum has been sucked away by an almost total media blackout, mainly due to the embattled communications situation.
The Taliban – officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – denies that it is targeting civilians.
Nonetheless, NRF activists continue to raise the alarm over the fate of the famed province and fear for the fate of those on the mountains without adequate food and assistance coming in as the winter months loom, and what will become of them whether they do or do not surrender. Global human rights monitoring groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), have called on the Taliban to allow independent missions to carry out investigations into the allegations of abuse.
NRF leader Ahmad Massoud – the 32-year-old son of the iconic “Lion of Panjshir” rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud who was killed by al Qaeda two days before the September 11 attacks, continues to herald a “national uprising” against the Taliban.
Last week, Massoud signed a pro-bono contract with Robert Stryk of Stryk Global Diplomacy to dissuade the United States government from recognizing the Taliban – and thus securing the international funding and legitimacy they desire as the embattled country struggles with a dire economic crisis and teeters on the brink of financial collapse. While much of the international community are seeking to assist embattled Afghans, governments are deeply cautious of bankrolling a regime that waged war against the United States and its ground partners for almost twenty years.
Meanwhile, Murtaza, 27 – who owns a barbershop in the Panjshir capital of Bazark – says he and his wife and four young children survived 10 days in the mountains but were fast running out of food and water. Yet in the end, he claims, the Taliban caught them and gave them no choice but to come down and eventually flee to the overstuffed Kabul camp.
Murtaza notes he was not harmed by the Taliban fighters, but for days witnessed heavy fighting, although he did not personally participate. Despite the worry that a possible genocide is being waged against the Panjshiri population by the Taliban, he vows that is not the case.
“The fighting is on both sides,” Murtaza says.
And while the likes of Lailuma have little in the way of a home inside the sprawling bundle of tents, she insists that she will follow Massoud to her “last breath.”
“If peace comes,” she says. “We are going back.”