Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

With ISIS gone, Afghan villagers struggle to rebuild from rubble

War against extremists took heavy toll on Pekha, in Nangarhar province's Achin district

Nakibullah Sahir, 29, sits in the ruins of his house in Pekha village, Achin District. Stefanie Glinski for The National
Nakibullah Sahir, 29, sits in the ruins of his house in Pekha village, Achin District. Stefanie Glinski for The National

After more than four years under ISIS, there is barely a house still standing in Pekha, a village in Achin district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.

Buildings are riddled with bullet holes and homes lie in rubble. On some of the walls still standing the extremist group’s black flag has been hastily scraped off.

The government gained control over Pekha this year. But recently hundreds more ISIS fighters have surrendered to the government after military operations in Nangarhar, one of the group's main bases in the country. More are expected to surrender soon.

“Daesh’s backbone has been broken,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared on Tuesday.

Villagers in Pekha say their spirit has been broken, too.

“Just look any direction – everything is in rubble,” said Nakibullah Sahir, 29, sitting amid the ruins of his home. "We have to start all over again.

“Many of us left during ISIS control. The militants destroyed so much and countless American bombs were dropped at the same time.

"It was unbearable then but it isn’t much better now. We came back to nothing.”

In recent weeks, the men of the village have been meeting at the home of an elder, one of the few houses not destroyed, to discuss how to move ahead.

“But we’re broken and there’s little hope,” said Malek Esmat, 50, one of the elders.

Conflict has long been part of daily life in Achin. Taliban militants, who have waged an insurgency since being toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001, were active until ISIS captured the district in 2015.

“The fighting in Achin between 2015 and 2018 has frequently been chaotic, brutal and violent to a degree not seen before in the district, or elsewhere in the country,” Reza Kazemi of the Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote in a report.

"Many civilians have been killed, injured, kidnapped for ransom, dispossessed of their property or displaced. Some unmarried women were also forcibly married, mostly to ISIS fighters."

More than 6,000 people in Afghanistan's Achin district have lost their homes in the fight against militants. Stefanie Glinski for The National
More than 6,000 people in Afghanistan's Achin district have lost their homes in the fight against militants. Stefanie Glinski for The National

The emergence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 attracted local and foreign fighters, said Lt Gen Abdul Hadi Khalid, a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.

The UN said in July that there were between 2,500 and 4,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, although the National Directorate of Security and Ministry of Defence play down that number.

Since the start of the year, about 90 per cent of Achin has returned to government control for the first time in decades, district Governor Ashikullah Sadat said.

Tens of thousands of people fled Achin during ISIS rule, but more than 6,000 families have returned since the start of the year, Mr Sadat said.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network estimates the current population of the district at between 104,000 and 322,000 people. Exact figures are hard to come by because of frequent displacement.

Nestled in mountains and surrounded by green farmland and apple trees, Pekha’s setting is idyllic. But despite being liberated, danger still lurks.

Just a few kilometres away there are ISIS militants hiding in tree-covered mountains, and the sound of drones flying overhead at night raises fears of new air strikes.

Musam Shinwari, 25, a farmer from Pekha, lost four family members in a US air strike that destroyed his house two years ago.

Mr Shinwari was injured in his arms and legs and continues to suffer pain and health problems.

There are no functioning health centres in Pekha, so getting treatment means a trip to the provincial capital Jalalabad, about an hour’s drive away.

“Worse still is that I can’t work any more due to my injuries,” Mr Shinwari said.

Children stand in the ruins of their school in the Afghan village of Pekha in Achin district of Nangarhar province. Stefanie Glinski for The National
Children stand in the ruins of their school in the Afghan village of Pekha in Achin district of Nangarhar province. Stefanie Glinski for The National

The village also no longer has a school after it was destroyed by ISIS.

The children of families that returned have nothing to do but play in the brick ruins and surrounding farmland, exposing them to mines laid by ISIS and unexploded ordnance from air strikes and fighting in the area.

Power supply to the village is erratic and many of the roads leading to it are unpaved.

“The government doesn’t have the budget to rebuild,” Mr Sadat said. “The destruction was so steady over the years that it’s difficult to know where to even start.

"More than 6,000 people have lost their homes. They want to return to their lives but they don’t have the money.”

Mr Sahir is one of them. He lives with his family in a tent away from the village but travels there each day to meet relatives and try to rebuild his house, hoping to eventually return.

“I almost can’t keep up,” he said. “First the Taliban, then Daesh, now the government.

“Seeing your house and your life destroyed – it does something to you, it destroys part of your soul.

"We all struggle with trauma and many are depressed. We’re trying to make sense of what happened but it’s hard. We saw Daesh face to face and they have taken much from us.”

Mr Sadat said security has increased in Achin and peace is returning, but villagers are sceptical.

Over one of the ISIS flags, villagers have drawn an Afghan flag with the words "We want peace" below it.

“It might not be here yet but we hope that it will come soon," Mr Sahir said. "And with it, most people will return and rebuild."

Updated: November 22, 2019 01:24 AM

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