Last remaining Panjshiris cling to hope as Taliban fighters move into valley

Torn posters and frightened civilians are all that's left of Panshir's resistance

The remains of wrecked police pick-ups and the odd burned-out Humvee litter the road into the Panjshir valley, where newly abandoned villages punctuate a desolate landscape of rivers, trees and steep mountains.

Trucks piled high with furniture, cushions and suitcases – people’s belongings – head out of the valley on a road carved out between the river and the mountains.

Of course I’m afraid. Wouldn’t you be afraid of your enemy?
Omaira Merzaie, Panjshir valley resident

Snaking towards the capital Kabul, the trucks pass shepherds with their flocks, shuttered shops, and hundreds of armed Taliban fighters.

These are the families who have decided to pack up and leave.

The mass migration is all too visible. Many restaurants and bakeries are closed and few civilians venture outside. Those who have stayed behind are mainly farmers, or tending to livestock.

Young, heavily-armed Talibs patrol the road, including in the provincial capital Bazarak.

Some of them said they came as reinforcements and were heading into the mountains to fight in the skirmishes still continuing there.

In Tolkha, a small community of mud houses with sunny rooftops, villagers say that fewer than 100 of the approximately 3,300 residents have stayed. Many of those who stayed said they would have liked to leave, but don’t have the cash to do so.

One of the residents who is still here, Noor Alam Said, a 12-year-old boy, managed to escape into the mountains with his family when the fighting started.

But the violence followed him there, and he only narrowly survived when he was caught in the crossfire and a bullet grazed his head, miraculously causing only a minor wound. He showed off his stitches and pointed to his left knee, where another bullet passed through – again without causing serious damage.

“He was lucky. We thank God,” said his father, Ghulam Said, 47. “Now the war seems to be over. The entire Panjshir Valley is full of the Taliban.”

Most of Mr Said’s neighbours eventually left after giving up hope that the resistance would keep the Taliban at bay. “We are poor people. We have no money and nowhere to go,” explained Mr Said, who has five sons and four daughters, hinting that otherwise he would have liked to escape too.

Panjshir's history of resistance

Situated in a deep, hard-to-enter valley, the central Afghan province had previously never been captured by an invader – not by the Soviets, nor by the Taliban during the group’s first march to power in 1996.

But the new ‘Islamic Emirate’ claimed on September 6 that they had taken the whole province.

The Taliban claim to have defeated the National Resistance Front led by former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, son of the late mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

A thorn in the side to the Taliban, the elder Massoud kept their fighters out of Panjshir but was assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide attackers posing as journalists just days before the 9/11 terror attacks 20 years ago.

In recent weeks, propaganda and unverified information was spread on social media by both Taliban and National Resistance Front supporters.

Both claimed initial victories, and the resistance alleged that many of the fighters on the Taliban’s side in the battle for Panjshir had come over from neighbouring Pakistan.

The Taliban temporarily cut mobile phone transmissions in the province and stopped journalists from visiting.

Ahmad Massoud’s spokesperson told The National that, while the main valley was emptied of their fighters, anti-Taliban fighters remained “stationed in the side valleys,” and that the resistance leader was still in Afghanistan.

At least in the centre of the valley, all that remains of the resistance are posters along the roadside honouring the late Massoud and other fallen fighters.

But many here remain loyal to the young Massoud, vowing to take up the fight against the Taliban if he instructs them to and refusing to give up hope.

“I hope that he can free us,” Mr Said said, apparently unafraid that life in the village would likely continue much as it had before – with or without the Taliban.

Omaira Merzaie, a 55-year-old resident of Tolkha, which lies in a green valley below Massoud’s mausoleum, said she too had escaped into the mountains when she heard the skirmishes drawing nearer.

Sitting with some of the other women who had stayed behind, she said she had only recently returned to the village to find that the Taliban had crossed the river and entered the bazaar in the town.

“Of course I’m afraid,” she told The National. “Wouldn’t you be afraid of your enemy?”

On the other side of the bridge, the white flag of the Taliban flew over parked trucks belonging to the militants, who have arrived in the valley from all over the country. They are replacing the locals who have left in droves.

Updated: September 24th 2021, 7:47 AM