Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Two girls with clasped hands stare expressionlessly at the ground

AFGHANISTAN / Sangin – during twenty years of war, this area has been the bloodiest battlefield. It is reminiscent of Roman ruins. In 2001, one in three Afghans was starving – now one in two is starving.


The landscape is yellow. Mile after mile along the road, hours of yellow sand. Yellow dust. Every now and then a little gray, where a mine has exploded, or a bomb has hit the target. Suddenly, when it's really deserted, the Google map shows Sangin, and it dawns on us that we're actually ahead. For Sangin does not exist anymore.

#Afghanistan is often understood with a Kabul look. Sangin has – on paper – a population of 20 inhabitants and is located in Helmand province, the Taliban's core area. In the heart of the opium districts. During twenty years of war, this area has been the bloodiest battlefield: this is where the Americans and the British, in rotation at the front line, have lost the most soldiers.

The highway of death

In all, NATO forces lost 3605 men; a fifth of them fell in Sangin. For each of them there is a name, a picture and a story. The Afghans who fell do not even have a number. In the course of twenty years, no one has registered them.

Homes that cost $ 300 each were leveled by a B-52 plane that cost $ 70 for every hour it is on the wings.

The road between Kabul and Kandahar – the country's two most important cities – continues on to Sangin and tells a little about the Americans' efforts in Afghanistan. The road was built by the Soviets, it has been maintained and repaired for 300 million dollars and a symbol of a new development time: It is 48 km long, barely two fields wide, without signs and with cracked and dented asphalt. The Afghans call it the highway of death. Not just because of all the car accidents, but sections without asphalt that are just a gravel road, where the road surface has been blown away by an improvised bomb, or the stretch destroyed by a collapsed bridge.

The road passes through areas that are considered dangerous to foreigners – Afghanistan. has been accustomed to self-government, no matter who has been in power in Kabul. In addition, it goes through ruins. Ruins of clay houses, where only fragments of the house walls remain. It is reminiscent of Roman ruins. Homes that cost $ 300 each were leveled by a B-52 plane that cost $ 70 for every hour it is on the wings. The clay houses could probably have been flushed away with the help of a fire hose. Or a garden hose.


Suddenly, our guide points to a tree: “It was my childhood home. That's where I grew up. There is nothing left, only the tree. The Americans bombed so much that even the ruins are in ruins. " The guide's name is Amenullah. He is 18 years old and has participated in the war since the age of five. He wears sandals and an AK-5 Kalashnikov automatic rifle. He shows me the carrying permit, and it says that his profession is "Taliban". With amazement he looks at my contact lenses and the notes written in the Latin alphabet. When I tell him I come from a city by the sea, he asks, "What is a sea?"

Amenullah is an expert in ambush. "We made explosives with potassium and residues of iron. In a pan. Frying pan ", he says. To prevent civilians from being hit, they closed roads or dug tunnels. And blew himself up in the air right at the goal. "But usually it was easy," he says. "Before they came, the Americans were sending reconnaissance soldiers, so we could just follow them and lay mines everywhere. The Americans wanted to be sure they found out. At one point they could be sure: that they were going to die. "

He's looking at me. "Winning is about being smart," he says. "Not about power."

He has never been to Kabul. He's been in The song all his life. There he knows everything and everyone, even those who are described as "collateral damage" – unintentional civilian losses. Or intentional losses: Some houses happened to be in the line of fire. Or was suddenly in a declared military area. People were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"We became homeless"

"But why did they attack here?" I ask a tea-drinking man in the background. He is sitting on a hewn stone, the only proof that there has been a house here. That it has been life. "Ask the Americans," he replies. 'It seemed like they did not want Afghans here. Not just members of the Taliban. They were afraid of us. One day they said we had to go, and then they ruined everything. We became homeless ", he says and rolls up his sleeve. His elbow is clearly injured, his legs out of position since a fracture has never been treated.

No one is harmed here. The rest of the house walls that are left are peppered with bullet holes, and so are the people. Everyone has a scar, a crutch, missing a finger. An empty search where there has been an eye. A boy looks like he has been sawn in two and put back together with a needle and thread. "If you carried something, a sickle, a shovel or a screwdriver, they thought it was a rifle. And opened fire. And if you did not carry anything, they still fired, "says the boy's father:" Because they thought you were the weapon, about to blow yourself up. They said: Stay away! But it was actually them who came closer. "

Two girls with clasped hands stare expressionlessly at the ground.

Many here have no idea where the United States is.

Two girls stare expressionlessly at the ground. They stand with their hands together, here where their mother climbed up to repair the roof and was shot down by an American soldier. A house like any other, of clay and straw, without water and electricity, no food, only stale bread. I ask another man what kind of future he wants for his children. He replies, "That they are not killed."

Whatever story you are looking for, with the cynicism of the Western reporter, you will find it here in Sangin: The Innocents Who Were Shot, Wrongly Taken to Be Taliban Soldiers or Americans; those who have never received any form of compensation; those who were bombed three times, four times, five times; the story of those who ended up at Guantánamo; or at the bottom of the Mediterranean; those who lost everyone in the family; and those who were killed whose bodies have never been found.

"I would like to talk to a family where the only survivor is a child, a child who is now Talib," I tell the driver. He's driven us out to a family. The only survivor is the father of the family, who says, "It's me." Or do I prefer a child who is crippled?

Haji Agha Ahmad

The driver's name is Haji Agha Ahmad, he is 21 years old, maybe 22. He does not know for sure. The family was exterminated when he was seven years old, he was raised by the Taliban. Now he leads a force of 60 men. 'I lost everything overnight. And no one, neither the Americans nor the authorities, wondered how I was doing. How was I, a seven-year-old boy? ” he says.

"You invaded Afghanistan to defend yourself. Against what? A seven-year-old? »

I ask him what he would say to the Americans today, and to all those who know little about the Taliban. "Nothing," he replies. 'Actually nothing. I do not have time. I'm rebuilding a country. Start life anew. » He continues: “Instead, you can ask yourself, what do you have to say to me? You invaded Afghanistan to defend yourself. Against what? A seven-year-old? »

The war here broke out on October 7, 2001, as a kind of response to 9/11. Even though Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11. People here were not members of Al Qaeda either – they were a local group. They are Afghans, not Arabs. Osama bin Laden admittedly stayed in Afghanistan, but only because he was deported from Sudan. He was eventually killed in Pakistan, for an attack carried out by Saudi Arabia. Two countries that are US allies.

'But did you really think you could win? By fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country? And do you now understand why it went as it went »? asks Ahmad. "After twenty years of war, you have the Islamic State."

The United States has spent $ 2261 billion on Afghanistan. But i Helmandprovince, there is not only respect for the Taliban, but also care. The Taliban are heroes. They are so entrenched in the Afghans that they wear neither uniform nor symbols. In theory, you should be able to recognize them because they have Kalashnikovs. But everyone has a Kalashnikov rifle in Afghanistan. Everyone has a firearm. So who is the Taliban here, and who is not? Here, everyone claims to be innocent, everyone has been attacked for no reason, yet everyone has ties to the Taliban – who is the civilian, who is the helper and the facilitator? Or simply a criminal?

The United States does not have the answer. With the embassy closed in Kabul, the United States had little or no information about what Afghanistan was. They did not know how to identify the enemy. "I have no idea who 'the bad guys' are," said Donald Rumsfeld in 2003. He was Secretary of Defense in the United States and was responsible for pointing out attack targets.

The result is that by Helmand Lake there is no one left. Everyone was killed. Four families lived by the water. Fifty people died in three years. Half were children. One family was completely exterminated. The other three families had one survivor each. They were all farmers. Only farmers.
"We did not get help. Not from the Americans, nor from the Taliban, "said Abdul Ghajoor, one of the three survivors. They live so isolated here and are used to being able to fend for themselves, so there will be an extra translation: from Sangin Pashto to Kabul Pashto and to English.


"Not only did they bomb everything, they mined the area so we could not move back," he says, laying down his son. He is 15 years old. He was not counted among the survivors, since he survived only partially: with a back injury and a brain injury, he resembles a puppet with broken strings. He's never seen a doctor. "You are the first foreigners we talk to," he says. "In fact, the first strangers."
50 people lost their lives. No one came.

In Kabul, the return of the Taliban is the same as the return of fear. In Sangin, peace returns.

The return of the Taliban

In Kabul, the return of the Taliban is the same as the return of fear. In Sangin, peace returns. "We have nothing. Here we have always been poor ", says Sher Mohammed, another of the three: He holds me back so I do not step on a landmine in the tall grass. "Had they built a hospital, roads, whatever, the Americans would have been welcome. Instead, they took from us what little we had ", he says.

In 2001, one in three Afghans went hungry. Now one in two is starving.

The Afghans do not want the Taliban's sharia law, because sharia law already exists. In Sangin, as in the rest of Helmand province, women do not wear the burqa – they do not wear at all. The women stay at home. Here, Afghan drivers drive with the rearview mirror covered so he can not look at women in the back seat.

There is nothing here. Not school, hospital, water, electricity, telephone lines, paved roads or petrol station. Nothing.

"From the new government, I expect security, but first and foremost food and shelter," said Zakira Haq, a 51-year-old woman who looks 70 and lives in a jute tent. "I have had to move all night because it was raining and the water was flowing through the tent cloth. Today I only have tea to live on ", she says as she lets me into the tent. 'What else can I tell you? Is not what you see enough? ” About the Taliban, she simply says, "It is good that they are back."

I ask if she is not worried that her daughter will not be able to study further now. Schoolcan be closed? She's looking at me. Sangin does not have a regular school. They have a madrasa – "school" which teaches religion. There is nothing here. Not school, hospital, water, electricity, telephone lines, paved roads or petrol station. Nothing.

The United States has spent more than $ 2000 billion on rebuilding Afghanistan. More than Marshall aid. But in the Pentagon's archives you will find projects such as "9 Italian goats to revitalize the Kashmir area", at a price tag of 6 million dollars. No one knows where they are. In the accounting books, the only safe amounts are bribes. Typically, it was 18 percent to the Taliban and 15 percent to the government.

The problem is that the United States has never had a strategy. In 2001, they took Kabul for six weeks. Twenty were killed, one more than the invasion of Grenada. The Americans expected to leave Bagram so quickly that they did not set up as much as a shower. Bagram became one of the main bases of the United States with 30 soldiers and a Harley Davidson dealer. Dirty clothes were transported by helicopter to the nearest laundry – in Uzbekistan.

The Taliban also does not appear to have a strategy. Unlike others, they have never established a shadow state. They have never had a division into a military department and a civilian department. They are not like the Muslim Brotherhood. Som Hamas. Or Hezbollah. They're just warriors.

World opium

A man plots a field. I ask him what he is going to grow there. "Poppies," he replies, "I have no choice." Afghanistan produces 80 percent of the world's opium.

A man on a motorcycle stops to talk to Amenullah, our guide. He has three petrol cans with red cork, tied together with a white fuse. These are bombs that were meant for the Americans. He is one of the Taliban's explosives experts, and now his priority is to make bombs intended for IS jihadists.

For that is the dream of every Taliban: a suicide attack on IS. "But there are many hopefuls out there," says Amenullah: "You will only be chosen if you have good connections." He is on the waiting list. Like everyone else, he asked his mother for permission first. "Your mother's permission?" I ask. He replies, "I do not want anyone to suffer because of me."

Francesca Borri (text and photo)

Translated by Iril Kolle

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

Related articles