Heratis Flee Violence Ahead of Ballot
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||18 August 2009|
|Citation / Document Symbol||ARR No. 331|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Heratis Flee Violence Ahead of Ballot, 18 August 2009, ARR No. 331, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a8d54d31a.html [accessed 1 August 2014]|
Thousands escape battle between US-led forces and local insurgent group.
By IWPR-trained reporters in Herat (ARR No. 331, 18-Aug-09)Violence is flaring up around Herat city ahead of the Afghan presidential and provincial council elections on August 20. At least 3,000 families have been displaced as a result of fighting between insurgents and Afghan and American forces, say local authorities.
People in Gozara district, only 20 kilometres south of Herat city, started leaving their homes over the weekend, during raids by of Afghan and foreign forces into the insurgent-controlled area.
"This is all because of the elections," said Mullah Alef, an old man who fled with his family, leaving all their possessions behind. Most of the refugees have been staying with relatives in and around Herat city. He sighed deeply, "I wish there were no elections."
General Jalandarshah Behnam, commander in chief of the 207th Zafar corps in western Afghanistan, confirmed that the operation began at the weekend, and that it was led by United States special forces along with Afghan commandos.
According to eyewitnesses, a convoy of foreign soldiers entered the village of Siyawooshan in Gozara district on August 15, after days of intense aerial patrols. Insurgents attacked the troops when they came into the village and set one vehicle on fire.
Local people told IWPR that two foreign soldiers had been killed. US Forces-Afghanistan, USFOR-A, told IWPR there were two fatalities, one a civilian working for the military and the other a soldier. They would not comment about the fighting and said there had been no reports of displacement.
Siyawooshan district is home to rebel commander Ghulam Yahya Akbari, who has long been a thorn in the side of the foreign troops and Afghan security forces.
A former mayor of Herat, Yahya fell out with the previous governor of the province and took up arms about two years ago.
Along with his men, who number approximately 200, Yahya keeps a tight grip on Gozara district, from which he frequently launches attacks on Herat airport and the nearby United Nations.
Late last week, rockets fired from the direction of Siyawooshan closed down the airport for two days.
Yahya is not Taleban, although he espouses many of their conservative views. He had initially opposed the elections, but had recently shown signs of softening towards one of the presidential candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
General Ismatullah Alizai, Herat's chief of police, told the media that eight insurgents were killed in the battle on August 15, including Yahya's 25-year-old son Zekirya.
Yahya himself confirmed the Zekirya's death in a telephone interview with IWPR; he sounded distant, and did not betray any emotion over the loss of his son.
Dr Amrullah Amani, head of emergency medicine at Gozara hospital, told IWPR that they'd received the bodies of three civilians killed in the operation.
"I spoke with the relatives," he said. "One told me that one of the men was killed by a bullet while sleeping on the roof of his house. Two brothers were killed as they left their house to go to a neighbouring village."
Gozara district has been the scene of fighting several times in the last year. In February, US forces launched an air strike against Yahya, and initially claimed that he and 15 of his men had been killed. It later transpired that Yahya and his men escaped without serious injury, although a group of Kuchi nomads died in the bombing.
Just two months ago, in the Qala-e-Manzili area of Siyawooshan there was a violent clash between foreign soldiers and insurgents. Residents say one vehicle belonging to the former was destroyed, although this has not been confirmed by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, or by USFOR-A.
But people are still living in the district, despite the risks. Some lack the means to move, others are reluctant to leave their homes and fields.
According to the Danish Afghanistan Committee, DAC, there are approximately 15,000 families living in Gozara. In addition to the 3,000 families that have already fled, more are leaving every day, said Dr Amani. "There are planes flying over the area day and night," he added.
"We are so afraid of the bombs we can't sleep," said Abdul Qayum, 50, who has come back to his village to see if his house is still standing. "That is why everybody is leaving."
Mohammad Eshaq, 40, has sent his family away, but he himself has stayed behind. "Somebody has to harvest the fruit in our garden," he explained.
Ghulam Dastagir, 60, from Siyawooshan village, was fortunate enough to rent a house in Herat city. There he and his nine children will shelter during the elections. But he thinks their problems will not end on Auguts 20.
"Will the troops stay after the elections?" he asked somberly. "Will the insurgents again take over and prevent us from returning, to punish us for leaving?"
Dastagir paused, and sighed.
"Our lives might get even worse after the elections," he said.
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