Afghan businessman Mohammad Zahir never thought he would leave his home of 20 years in Mazar-i-Sharif, but when the Taliban appeared at the gates of the main city in Balkh province in June, he decided it was time to go.
Now, he and his family are among thousands of Afghans who have fled to Kabul as the militants wage fierce battles across the country, posing the most serious threat of their two-decade insurgency.
The rise in violence, triggered by the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, has resulted in the fall of many districts, particularly in the northern provinces that were once considered out of the Taliban’s reach.
The relative security in northern Afghanistan had allowed Mr Zahir, 46, to build up a thriving business selling cooking oil imported from Uzbekistan, which borders Balkh.
“No one expected that the Taliban would reach so close to a city like Mazar. It was always a safe and prosperous haven. But the day the Taliban reached the gates of Mazar, I decided to leave,” he told The National.
“My children were horrified when they saw the photos of the Taliban roaming around the checkpoint outside Mazar. They couldn’t sleep and would keep asking me what would happen if they took over the city. My 3-year-old asked me, ‘Will they kill us?’ and my 11-year-old daughter asked if she would be forced to wear chadari [traditional Afghan burqa].
“This is a lot for the children to deal with and I couldn’t bear to watch them live in fear, so we left.”
Mr Zahir moved to Kabul in June because the Afghan capital is considered a government stronghold, despite occasional militant attacks.
“I am glad I did because many relatives and fellow businessmen are now stuck and unable to leave Mazar because of security as well as affordability,” he said.
Property agents in Kabul say demand for homes from the influx of people fleeing the Taliban has pushed rents up by as much as 40 per cent.
“Recently I have been getting a lot of tenants from big cities like Mazar and Herat who want to move to Kabul,” estate agent Sayed Hussain told The National.
Mr Hussain, 40, inherited his business from his father during the Taliban regime and has seen it all, from drastic, high rents after the US-led invasion that toppled the militants from power to a slump after reduced aid led many international NGO workers to leave.
“I remember it like yesterday, how the property costs and rent jumped when the Americans came to Afghanistan. I had rented a big house to a Taliban member for 15,000 Pakistan rupees per month, which was around $250 then," he said.
"But when the Taliban fell, he left the house, and three months later I rented the same house to Americans for $3,000 per month. Then a few years later, a British organisation took that same house for $8,500 per month."
The property lay empty after 2019, when foreigners began leaving the country.
“Last year, we had so many empty apartments, especially after foreigners started leaving as the security worsened and NGOs shut. There were hardly any tenants to replace them.”
But in recent months it has become hard to find homes for rent in the capital.
“Even the ones that foreigners vacate are quickly rented out to Afghans who are pouring into Kabul. Though they can’t pay as much as the foreigners would, there has been a notable spike in rental costs,” Mr Hussain said.
Rents have increased by 30 to 40 per cent, he said. “If an apartment was for $200, now it’s close to $300 for the month.”
Many of the new arrivals are seeking furnished homes.
"It is because these families are running away from war and they can’t bring anything with them. They also don’t want to make long-term contracts because they all hope to return when things improve,” he said.
“I even rented a house recently to a member of Parliament from the north. So you can picture how bad the security situation is that even the local parliamentarians can’t protect themselves in their own province.”
The UN refugee agency says an estimated 270,000 Afghans fled their homes between January and mid-July, raising the number of internally displaced Afghans to more than 3.5 million.
These figures do not reflect families such as Mr Zahir’s who, although also escaping violence, do not need the agency’s support.
“I have investment in Mazar and also in Kabul, so I could afford to shift my family here,” he said. “So many people don’t have this opportunity and I feel sorry for them.”
Mr Hussain said many of the displaced families were looking for smaller, shared spaces. Some labourers were even renting sleeping space in shops.
“This poor man came from Baghlan and during the day he works in Mandvi area, and at night he sleeps in a shop after they’ve closed for the evening. He uses the washroom at the nearby mosque when he needs to,” he said.
“I realise I am privileged,” Mr Zahir said. “I feel a bit lucky that at least I am displaced in my own country. We have rented an apartment in a safe neighbourhood. Although, I do miss the Mazari naan.”