When the first rifle fire started, a police unit tested its heavy machine gun. The sniper aimed the cannon near the Taliban front lines and fired with a deafening noise. Where the bullets landed, no one knows.
The sun had just set behind the horizon, and the call to prayer began to resonate in Kandahar City. The police unit, perched on the edge of a neighborhood made up mostly of mud houses and low-slung shops, prepared for another long night.
Midnight, according to the 29-year-old police commander, is when “the game really begins.”
Since the start of the US withdrawal in May, the Taliban have captured more than half of the approximately 400 Afghan districts. And for the past month, Kandahar, the second city, has been besieged by insurgents in what could be the most important fight for the future of the country.
Security forces attempted to contain them as other provincial capitals fell, including Kunduz, the largest city ever captured by the Taliban. In the past four days alone, insurgents have captured six capitals, ushering in a bloody new chapter in the war and further revealing just how little control the government has over the country without the support of the U.S. military.
The insurgents are desperate to take over Kandahar, as the Taliban first established themselves in its neighboring neighborhoods in the 1990s, before seizing the city itself and announcing its emirate. And the government is desperate to defend Kandahar, a symbol of state reach and an essential economic hub for trade with Pakistan through its checkpoints, bridges and highways.
On a hot night earlier this month, Afghan and Taliban flags fluttered over a nearby hill, a Buddhist-turned-Islamic shrine carved into its hill – the clearest mark of Kandahar’s western front line.
East of the mountain, a mix of Afghan army, commandos and special police units attempted at all costs to take over the town, despite being exhausted, malnourished and ill-equipped.
The government’s frontline begins in the Sarposa neighborhood, where the Taliban are trying to seize a prison that the group also attacked in 2008, in a move that has freed around 1,200 prisoners.
Nearby, the sound of gunshots and explosions is the signal for Raz Mohammed, 23, to begin his nighttime routine of taking his four children to the basement. He turns on an old fan, trying to muffle the sounds of war enough that they can sleep for a few hours.
The rusty device is only a poor defense against the horribly heavy gunfire that dragged on night after night in Kandahar. The fight is particularly fierce around Sarposa. There the Taliban have settled, using people’s homes and land they can occupy.
At first, Mohammed’s sons and daughters cried out in terror when the shooting started, but now the violence has become routine. Many of his neighbors have fled to safer parts of the city, but so far Mohammed has preferred to stay in the house the family has owned for 60 years.
He has nowhere to go.
“If I go out, I will have to live on the streets,” said Mohammed, surrounded by his children in the shadow of a shop he owned.
But with the rocket attacks and the exchange of fire each night, he knows his family will be forced to leave if the bombing draws near. They will be able to spend a few nights, at most, in the already overcrowded house of their loved ones before heading to one of the half-dozen or so refugee camps that have sprung up around town, desolate, with no water or food in. sufficient quantity, and extremely hot. .
This is the difficult option for thousands of families in one of Afghanistan’s most important metropolises, and also for many of them spread over vast areas of the country. Kandahar is a city whose historical and strategic importance has made it a focal point for the military campaigns of the Taliban and the government.
“I just want this uncertainty to end,” Mohammed said in the morning after another long battle a few hundred yards from his home.
Sulaiman Shah lived a few blocks from Mohammed, in another neighborhood that was enveloped by the recent Taliban advance. Last month, the short and strong 20-year-old made the decision that Mohammed has so far avoided.
When the fighting got too close, he fled his home with his wife and a few months, finding refuge in a camp near the airport, east of Kandahar, far from the front lines. Her family now live in a tent made of canvas and knotted scarves.
No international aid has so far reached the city’s refugee camps. Volunteers supported by a local assistant peel potatoes covered with flies which they cook and distribute during the day. The grounds are a jumble of makeshift tents, families sprawled on the ground, and an empty government building that stinks of human waste.
“If they want to help us, they should stop fighting in our neighborhood so that we can return home,” Shah said in an appeal to the government, along with the few personal effects he managed to take.
Back in Sarposa, Atta Mohammed, 63, a beaten but determined man with 12 children, has so far preferred to stay at home. He tried to stop the war on his own terms, at least by negotiating with the Afghan forces stationed behind his house.
Caught between government and Taliban lines on the edge of his neighborhood, Atta Mohammed, who is unrelated to Raz Mohammed, made a simple request to the troops: stop firing.
“We don’t care who’s in government,” Mohammed said in a shady alley near his 46-year-old home. “I just wanna be on one side or the other.”
Mohammed’s stores were destroyed shortly after the fighting began last month. And like many in the neighborhood who have refused to leave, he fears that he or one of his children is a victim of the fighting, like several hundred civilians who have already been killed or injured, according to the UN.