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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As the first chatter of gunfire began, a police unit tested its heavy machine gun. The gunner pointed the barrel in the vicinity of the Taliban front line and fired in an ear-shattering clap clap clap. Where the bullets landed was anyone’s guess.
The sun was just slipping behind the horizon and the call to prayer began to echo through Kandahar city. The police unit, embedded on the edge of a neighborhood made up of mostly tan, mud brick houses and low-slung shops, prepared for another long night.
At midnight, the 29-year-old police commander said, was when “the real game begins.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal began in May, the Taliban have captured more than half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts. And for the past month, Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, has been under siege by Taliban fighters in what may be the most important fight for the country’s future so far.
Security forces have tried to hold them off as other provincial capitals have fallen elsewhere, including Kunduz, the largest city to be captured by the Taliban. In the last four days alone, insurgents seized six capitals, opening a bloody new chapter in the war and further revealing how little control the government has over the country without the backing of the American military.
The insurgents are desperate to capture Kandahar, as the Taliban first took root in its neighboring districts in the 1990s before seizing the city itself and announcing their emirate. And the government is desperate to defend Kandahar, a symbol of the state’s reach and an economic hub essential for trade to and from Pakistan through its checkpoints, bridges and highways.
On a warm evening earlier this month, both Afghan and Taliban flags flew atop a nearby mountain, a Buddhist-turned-Islamic shrine cut into its side — the clearest marker of Kandahar’s western front line.
To the east of the mountain, a mix of Afghan army, commando and special police units were desperately trying to hold the city, despite being exhausted, underfed and underequipped.
The government’s front line begins in the neighborhood of Sarposa, where the Taliban are trying to seize a prison that they also attacked in 2008, in a raid that freed roughly 1,200 inmates.
Nearby, the bursts of gunfire and crump of explosions signal Raz Mohammed, 23, to begin his nightly routine of moving his four children to the basement. He turns on an aging floor fan to try and dim the sounds of war long enough for them to get a few hours of sleep.
The rusty appliance is a tepid defense to the hellaciously loud firefights that have dragged on night after night in Kandahar. The fighting is especially fierce around Sarposa. There, the Taliban have dug in, using people’s homes and whatever terrain they can for cover.
In the beginning, Mr. Mohammed’s sons and daughters screamed out in terror whenever the shooting began, but now the violence has become routine. Many of their neighbors have already fled for more secure parts of the city. But so far Mr. Mohammed has chosen to stay; his home has been in his family for 60 years.
And he has nowhere else to go.
“If I leave, I’ll have to live on the street,” said Mr. Mohammed, his sons around him, loitering in the shade of a shop that he owns.
But as each night ruptures with rocket strikes and gunfire, he knows his family will be forced to leave if the bombardment gets any closer. They will be able to spend a few nights at most at his relatives’ already-cramped house before ending up in one of the half-dozen or so refugee camps that have sprung up around the city, barren, devoid of enough water and food and oppressively hot.
This is the stark choice for thousands of families in one of Afghanistan’s most prominent metropolises and also for many spread across large swathes of the country. Though Kandahar is a city whose historical and strategic significance have turned it into a symbolic focal point for both the Taliban and government’s military campaigns.
“I just want this uncertainty to end,” Mr. Mohammed said, the morning after another long battle just a few hundred yards from his home.
Sulaiman Shah lived just blocks from Mr. Mohammed, in a different neighborhood that was enveloped by the Taliban’s recent advance. Last month, the short and wiry 20-year-old made the decision that Mr. Mohammed has so far resisted.
When the fighting got too close, he fled his home with his wife and months-old son, finding sanctuary in a refugee camp near the airport in the eastern part of Kandahar, far from the front lines. His family now lives inside a tent made of a tarp and tied-together scarves.
Every day he waits in line for water dispensed from a silver tank that is infrequently refilled and far from enough for the camp’s roughly 5,000 residents who must endure temperatures that regularly break triple digits.
This camp was hastily organized in what was earlier the provincial office for the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs. Government officials said it had ample space after being closed during the coronavirus pandemic, with enough toilets for the influx of displaced people in the city and the surrounding districts. For now, that means one toilet per 60 people.
No international assistance has reached any of the city’s refugees camps yet. Volunteers, backed by a local parliamentarian, peel fly-covered potatoes that they cook and distribute later in the day. The grounds are an unorganized mess of homemade tents, families sprawled out on the ground and an empty government building that reeks of human excrement.
“If they want to help us, they should stop fighting in our neighborhood so we can go back to our homes,” Mr. Shah said in a simple plea to the government, standing beside what few belongings he managed to take with him.
Back in Sarposa, Atta Mohammed, 63, a staunch and battered father of 12 children who so far has opted to stay in his home, has tried to stop the war on his own terms, at least by negotiating with the Afghan forces arrayed directly behind his home.
Trapped between government and Taliban lines on the edge of the neighborhood, Atta Mohammed, who is of no relation to Raz Mohammed, has made a simple request to those troops: Stop shooting.
“We don’t care who is ruling,” Atta Mohammed said from a shaded alleyway next to his home of 46 years. “I just want to be on one side or the other.”
Atta Mohammed’s shops were destroyed soon 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 could become the victim of the fighting, like many of the hundreds of civilians who have already been killed or injured, according to the United Nations.
Just a week or so ago, a blind burst of gunfire in Sarposa had struck a 10-year-old boy in the head.
The child, Hanif, was trying to help fix a pump in his yard when the stray bullet struck his temple. Now he was in intensive care at the nearby Mirwais Regional Hospital, blind and crying out in pain. He was just one in a flood of people, young and old, who had come through its doors in recent weeks because of indiscriminate fire. On average, the war meant each day saw roughly five dead and 15 wounded pass through the hospital’s doors.
Hanif’s older brother, named Mohammed, sat beside him, trying to calm the flailing boy as he explained that his wounded sibling’s condition was not improving.
The doctors, Mohammed said, recommend that his brother go to Pakistan for treatment, an impossibility as they had little money. Their father’s car business had collapsed following the Taliban’s assault on the city, and they could no longer return to their home because it was too dangerous.
Hanif clawed at what he could not see and rolled over in the bed, crying out, his head wrapped in bandages: “I want to go home,” he repeated over and over.
His screams echoed down the hallway.
Taimoor Shah and Baryalai Rahimi contributed reporting.