KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Every day they escape the war zones by car, by boat and on foot. Young and old, they carry clothes and blankets, pots and pans, and an abundance of fear. To get to this sweltering northeastern Afghan city, they pass through a chaotic landscape of skirmishes and land mines.
Some die along the way. Others arrive broken by bullets or shrapnel. Most are penniless, humiliated and tormented by the loss of relatives and property. And they struggle to comprehend how their once-peaceful lives have been upended.
“This is the first time we’ve ever fled our village,” said Bibi Gul, whose spirit seemed as fragile as the tent in a desolate field that is now her home. “The bombs don’t understand who is the enemy and who is the friend.”
Across Afghanistan, tens of thousands of people are once again on the move. It’s a grim deja vu of the years of civil war and Taliban rule, when masses of Afghans flocked to refugee camps. What’s different now is that much of this desperate migration from rural areas to cities is unfolding in Afghanistan’s northeast, reflecting the conflict’s shift from conventional fighting zones in the south and east.
The new refugees are also a bleak symbol of how the shape of the fight has changed since the U.S.-led NATO mission formally ended combat operations last year. Afghan security forces, now backed by less American air support, are engaged in more fierce ground battles with insurgents, trapping civilians in the paths of mortars, rockets and bullets. With the Taliban fragmented and new militant groups surfacing, including the Islamic State, the number of front lines has surged around the country. Civilian casualties are at record levels.
“You have a different kind of fighting going on now,” said Catherine Howard, acting head of the United Nations’ humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. “Now, you’re seeing a more indiscriminate use of mortars in populated areas, and an increasing number of women and children impacted.”
The exodus has now reached levels unprecedented since the Taliban regime’s demise in late 2001. Nearly a million Afghans — about 3 percent of the population — have been driven by conflict to other parts of the nation.
Last year, more than 180,000 people were dislodged from their homes — more than in any single year since the war began, U.N. refugee officials said. The number is likely to equal or surpass that this year, they added. And about 40 percent of the displaced are in the northeast, a higher percentage than in any other region.
One family that fled was Jamillah’s, whose tent was perched near Bibi Gul’s on Kunduz’s southern edge. She said she remembers the Taliban fighters arriving and seizing her house as the conflict entered her village. She remembers her husband’s protests, then the militants’ ultimatum: “If you don’t leave, we will kill your sons in front of your eyes.”
So the family quickly grabbed what belongings they could carry and walked for two hours to Kunduz. They settled in the craggy field, along with thousands of other escapees. The next day, Jamillah said, she sent her 10-year-old son, Abdul, back to fetch their livestock. Hours later, she said, a village elder called to say her house had been destroyed by mortars and rockets. And Abdul was killed, along with their cow and several hens.
“Some of the elders buried my son,” Jamillah said listlessly, seated under a tent made of blankets with her two remaining sons, a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old. She uses only one name, as does Bibi Gul and many other Afghans.
There are fewer refugee camps today than before the fall of the Taliban, but the crisis is just as debilitating to communities. The fortunate find shelter among relatives and friends — the poor hosting the poor. The unfortunate end up on scorching patches of barren earth where the next meal is uncertain. Some just sit inside their rickety tents, praying for a foreign aid agency to appear.
“We are all waiting here for assistance,” said Bibi Gul, who said her husband, a laborer, was killed last year by a mortar round. “In my whole life, I have never lived in such a pathetic situation.”
Help, though, is hardly on the way. The embattled government, itself dependent on Western assistance, is ill-equipped to deal with humanitarian emergencies. With the expansion of front lines, many remote villages are unreachable by aid workers.
And after nearly 14 years of conflict — and with crises in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan competing for the world’s attention and dollars — “donor fatigue” has set in, aid workers say. Halfway into the year, the United Nations has received less than one-third of the $405 million it has rquested from the international community to respond to Afghanistan’s various humanitarian problems.
They include a refugee crisis in the country’s east, where about 225,000 Pakistanis have fled a military operation unfolding in border areas. Pakistan has also expelled tens of thousands of Afghan refugees this year, putting more pressure on relief agencies.
“Afghanistan in transition is still very fragile,” Howard said. “The reality on the ground for the people is that life is not getting better for them. In fact, it’s getting worse.”
The Taliban regime never had control of all northern areas, and the north has mostly been peaceful since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. But this spring, the Taliban staged numerous offensives in the region, in what Afghan officials said was an effort to carve out a safe haven. Last month, its fighters arrived at the outskirts of Kunduz and were repelled only after the government brought in reinforcements from around the country.
At the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, the only trauma facility in the northeast, patients bear the scars of the changing battlefront.
In the first five months of this year, doctors treated three times as many patients for conflict-related injuries as in the same period last year. On this day, every bed was full. Last month, over a four-day period, doctors treated 77 patients injured by clashes, one-third of whom were women and children.
“It’s becoming more and more violent now,” said Heman Nagarathnam, who heads the aid agency’s programs in northern Afghanistan.“Civilians are increasingly caught in the crossfire.”
Abdul Ghafoor, 32, was working in his rice paddy last month in Imam Sahib, a rugged district roughly 50 miles north of Kunduz. He recalled hearing fighting, but he believed it was too distant for him to be in harm’s way. Then a stray bullet struck his right leg. A neighbor helped him into a car and drove him to the hospital, he said.
Doctors treated his wound, but not his fear.
“I am worried about getting shot again,” said Ghafoor, his eyes downcast as he lay on a bed in the hospital ward. “I don’t care if the Taliban or the government rules. All I want is security.”
In late June, a mortar shell hit a mosque in nearby Chardara district, injuring as many as 30 children and youths inside, according to Nagarathnam. Ten of the most severely injured, ages 8 to 18, were brought to the hospital. What is normally a half-hour journey took them two hours, he added. Worried about land mines, the group decided to walk part of the way. When they took a boat to cross the river to Kunduz, he said, they were mistaken for insurgents and fired upon by pro-government forces.
With the fighting nearing cities, aid workers are also increasingly at risk. Two weeks ago, heavily armed members of Afghanistan’s special forces burst into the hospital, shooting in the air, apparently searching for enemy combatants. They assaulted three hospital employees and threatened another at gunpoint, Doctors Without Borders said in a statement.
On a recent day, Jamillah sat inside her tent, cradling her infant son. Her husband and daughter were in the city, searching for work — he as a laborer, she as a house cleaner. There were 2,000 refugees in the field in early June, but now there were only five families. Many went to stay with relatives; others returned to their villages to harvest their crops, deciding to brave death rather than remain homeless.
“My whole life was a few hens and a cow,” said Jamillah. “I have lost all of them, as well as my son and my home. How can I go back?”