Thirty-year-old Mohammad isn’t sure who shelled his home in eastern Afghanistan’s Khogyani District: Taliban insurgents, or fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State.
But when a rocket-propelled grenade struck three months ago, killing some of his livestock, he knew he could no longer stay.
“We had to leave that night. The battle had reached our doorsteps,” Mohammad said, standing outside his family’s new home: a bare, single room in a compound set amid tents and shanty homes near Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
This area, less than 100 kilometres from Mohammad’s former home, is among hundreds of patchwork settlements that have proliferated throughout Afghanistan over the last five years, fed by a steady surge of people uprooted by an intensifying conflict and others pushed back from neighbouring countries.
The displaced and the returnees throng together in swelling districts like Behsud, which curves around urban Jalalabad. In settlements spreading over once-barren land, people live clustered in tents, hastily built structures, or under the open sky.
Their number has doubled over the past five years to more than 600 in the country’s worst-hit provinces, according to aid groups. In Nangarhar Province, wracked by insecurity and a prime destination for people returning from neighbouring Pakistan, almost one million people now live in these haphazard settlements – a figure that doubled over only seven months last year.
One in three people in Nangarhar is now either displaced or a returnee, with some 369,000 in Behsud alone, according to a recently released International Organisation for Migration survey. Each week, new violence brings more arrivals. Aid organisations can’t keep up, and the government has often stumbled in providing even basic support; food, shelter, and other fundamental needs are in short supply.
Analysts warn that the consequences of such widespread displacement may be felt for generations, as poverty rises and education rates fall.
“Our emergency response stocks have been largely exhausted by these displacements,” said William Carter, head of programme in Afghanistan for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which works with displaced communities in the region.
Across the country, more than 1.6 million people have been uprooted by conflict since 2015, and almost one million Afghans have returned from neighbouring Pakistan. Returnees from Iran and further abroad add to the turmoil.
Carter said donor funds to help people ousted by conflict have dwindled even while needs have soared. “So, whilst we are doing what we can, the future is somewhat bleak.”
Afghanistan has seen decades of upheaval. But aid workers say recent violence is intensifying and becoming more complex: hundreds of thousands of civilians each year are caught in the crossfire between a growing number of combatants, including Taliban militants, IS-aligned fighters, militias, and NATO-backed government security forces.
Fighters aligned with IS have injected a new level of volatility into the mix in eastern Afghanistan, where it has carved out an enclave and staged attacks against the Taliban, the government, civilians, and aid groups – including a January attack on the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad. The rise of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, as the local offshoot is sometimes known, has been rapid; it accounted for 1,000 civilian injuries and deaths in the country last year, according to UN figures, compared with a few dozen casualties only two years earlier.
“Thousands of families in eastern Afghanistan have had to flee their homes due to advances by groups aligned with the Islamic State,” Carter said. “But many families are simply fleeing armed conflict itself: the Islamic State is fighting the [Taliban], who is fighting Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, with the help of international special forces and airstrikes.”
Thirty-five-year-old Munir fled his home in Khogyani four months ago after the district descended into a battle zone.
“We left in large numbers with nothing but the clothes on our back, and each other,” Munir told IRIN. “A lot of our neighbours lost family members in the fighting.”
Today, his family lives in a tent in a crowded compound in Behsud, alongside others from his village who joined him on the midnight exodus.
Both Mohammad and Munir say they’ve been unable to find steady work.
Aid out of reach
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, which is also responsible for helping people displaced by conflict, has floated plans to build housing for both returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the country. In practice, however, many Afghans have had difficulty accessing aid for short-term, basic needs such as food and shelter.
According to a January study of displaced people in five provinces conducted by the NRC, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and humanitarian research group Samuel Hall, only one quarter of displaced households surveyed reported receiving any aid whatsoever. The report also found that the process of registering for the government’s official aid programme for IDPs was bureaucratic, overly strict, and out of reach for the majority of people who needed it.
A separate December assessment of the displacement in Khogyani District – home to both Mohammad and Munir – found that the government was “not visible” in the response to the emergency.
Officials at the refugees and repatriations ministry did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.
Displacement into informal settlements has also helped to make the Afghan capital, Kabul, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Around 1.5 million in 2001, its population is currently estimated at around six million and expected to reach eight million by 2020.
Analysts warn that the chronic displacement unfolding throughout the country will have long-term consequences that could span generations.
Nassim Majidi, director at Samuel Hall, says extreme poverty is likely to place greater pressure on families to push their kids to work. At the same time, research shows that many families are displaced multiple times, including many who return to Afghanistan from abroad only to find that the conflict has made their former homes unliveable.
“The humanitarian crisis will have social and political consequences,” said Majidi, who foresees repeated rounds of displacement, families split across borders, and a rise in child labour as Afghans resort to extremes to make ends meet.
“We’re facing wasted opportunities to educate the next generation, and instead facing intergenerational poverty,” she said.
While Mohammad’s five children aren’t yet working, they are no longer in school because he can’t afford to send them.
“If things don’t improve, at some point, they will have to work to help support the family,” he said.
Outside his tiny new home in Behsud, Mohammad’s children played on a muddy road softened by rain; an open drain filled with garbage flowed nearby. There’s no running water; his family collects washing water from a muddy ditch shared with other families.
Conditions may be poor, but Behsud’s newly arrived say they have no illusions about returning home anytime soon.
Mohammad sometimes receives news from his village back in Khogyani – from others who are only now escaping.
“I hear our house is in ruins and the livestock have all died or been stolen,” he said. “There is nothing to return to but more battles.”
(TOP PHOTO: A boy looks over new construction in a settlement where recent returnees from Pakistan now live in Nangarhar Province’s Behsud District. CREDIT: Ivan Flores/IRIN)