It was early morning and Najibullah, 31, was on his way to work his patch of farmland when the first explosions struck his village in the Zhari district of Kandahar about six weeks ago.
The father of five instinctively turned on his heel and raced home as quickly as he could, amid the sounds of air strikes and gunfire.
The province has been embroiled in bitter fighting since September as violence surged despite Doha peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Zhari, along with the Arghandab and Panjwai districts, have been the focal point of the conflict, with Afghan forces holding the centre of each district largely due to US air support. As of last week, the Taliban had gained ground as close as one kilometre within the centre of Zhari.
Many members of the security forces in the region are quick to emphasise how crucial American support has been, admitting morale has slumped as a result of the US troop withdrawal, but some of the men on the front lines say they are confident in their abilities to fight the Taliban.
Initially, Najibullah – who gave only one name – and his family took cover beneath shelving in a corner of their house in Sangesar village, clinging to one another in terror as the ground shook from the onslaught.
“We couldn’t do anything else. We had to wait until the fighting subsided enough that we could escape,” he says.
Eventually, the family made a mad dash to safety.
“We were running for a while. I had my two-year-old daughter in my arms. Suddenly I looked down and realised she wasn’t moving,” Najibullah says.
“I didn’t understand. My entire world stopped. The fighting around me seemed to just melt away as I tried to wake my baby girl, but it was too late – she was dead.”
Najibullah is not certain of what killed his daughter, but he suspects a heart attack caused by the terrifying circumstances.
Utterly distraught as he carried his lifeless daughter in his arms, Najibullah managed to flag down a lorry transporting the belongings of another family also fleeing the conflict. Once away from danger, Najibullah and his wife Khatima had no choice but to bury their little girl at the side of the road.
“I couldn’t even bury her in our family graveyard,” he says as he wipes away tears. “My wife and I cried together as we said goodbye.”
The family now lives in a tent in a camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of Kandahar city. A total of 250 families occupy the 4,000-square-metre camp, with only one small tank of water shared among them.
"It is my first time living in such poor conditions. I have land, I have a farm, I have everything in my village," Najibullah says.
He and his family fled with only the clothes on their backs and are now reliant on aid from local and international organisations. Food and blankets are in short supply.
“When the sun sets the nights are very tough. It is freezing cold. We have to stay here. We are waiting for help,” he says.
“We just want peace. I’m not scared of the Taliban but I’m scared of the air strikes. We cannot ignore what the support of the international community has brought us – roads, schools – but the Taliban want the US to leave, which will bring peace.”
More than 7,000 families have been displaced by the recent conflict in Kandahar province and that number is increasing by up to 50 families a day, according to Dost Mohammad Nayab, head of the Kandahar Refugee and Repatriation Department. He said about 2,000 families have received aid so far.
Other civilians fleeing the conflict have found refuge in dilapidated, empty buildings in neighbouring areas.
Amina, 30, was almost nine months pregnant when her village of Pashmol in the Zhari district came under attack.
“There were air strikes during the night and gunfire throughout the day. I was absolutely terrified,” says the mother of eight.
“We hid in our home for three days. We thought it would subside but it only got worse. In the end, we got into our car and drove through the back roads to safety.”
The house Amina's family are occupying lacks windowpanes. They have no proper bedding and only one or two blankets to keep warm. All 10 of them live in one room – other families occupy the other two rooms of the house.
It was in this barren house that Amina gave birth a few weeks ago.
“It was cold because there was no heater. We did not have blankets or hot water. I had no access to a medical clinic,” she says.
“We have no option but to stay here until there is security.”
The latest phase of peace talks between the government and the Taliban, which resumed on January 5 after a three-week break, have started slowly because of contrasting priorities – specifically regarding a ceasefire – and increasing violence throughout the country. The two sides took nearly three months to reach an agreement on the rules and procedures of the negotiations.
Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at Crisis Group, a think tank, says the Taliban do not need to be militarily strong enough to take Kabul; his concern is whether they will be able to exploit a change in dynamic – assuming the US troops continue their drawdown and and do not provide the support they could previously – and capture other provincial capitals.
“How can the Afghan government claim legitimacy if four or five provincial capitals are under the control of the Taliban?” he says.
In Kandahar’s Mirwais Regional Hospital, 19-year-old Ehsanullah lies in a hospital bed with his hands wrapped in thick white bandages.
He is from Tarinkot, in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan, and has been in hospital for eight days after his fingers were blown off by a mine.
“Our home was partly destroyed in the fighting that took place a couple of months ago. We had returned to what was left of it because we have no money and there was nowhere else for us to go. I was sifting through the debris trying to find our belongings because we fled with nothing,” he says.
“There was a wire but I didn’t see it. I just remember a loud bang, like a gunshot. I thought I had injured my eyes, so I was touching my face with my hands. There was mud on my hands and then I realised the problem was my hands. I couldn’t see flesh, just lots of blood. I was in shock.”
He says the Taliban were in his home and believes they planted the mine – a common story from both civilians and officials. The Taliban lay mines to slow down security forces and enter civilian homes to reduce the likelihood of their positions becoming targets.
Activists are pleading for more support for civilians caught up in the Kandahar conflict.
“People are not being given enough food or blankets. There is no support from the government,” says Abdul Baqi, a business owner who has provided land for displaced families to pitch tents on.
“In addition to immediate support, we need a long-term solution to help bring security to the region,” he says.
Additional reporting by Abdul Matin Amiri