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Asia

Freed of Taliban, Kunduz starts tough road to recovery

As the battle for Kunduz city raged between Taliban militants and government forces, almost half of its residents were thought to have fled. Most have returned - to an unstable, uneasy existence, reports Catherine James.

For Zalmai Nabizoda, whose family home had been obliterated by a US airstrike, returning to Kunduz city was more difficult than for most others - because for him, there was nothing to come back to.

"I had already left the city with my family [a wife and eight children aged six to 26] the day before the bombing when my neighbor called me to say my house had been hit by an airstrike," Nabizoda said.

Standing before the charred remains of the five-room building with no roof and everything inside burned beyond recognition except for the metal frame of a children's tricycle, it's hard to argue that such damage might have been caused by rocket grenade. The adjacent house where his mother and brothers lived is completely intact.

"My neighbor saw the plane," he explained. "We were in an area of very heavy fighting. I knew there were many militants near here. That's why we left." His mother and a brother left the compound only 20 minutes before the strike.

The

US Army used airstrikes to support Afghanistan's military

in their two-week battle to retake control of Kunduz city after the Taliban defeated local security forces and overran the city center on September 28.

Nabizoda said his family, like most, always planned to return, fleeing with nothing but a change of clothes. "We went quickly. And there was no room in the car to take anything."

Zalmai Nabizoda's niece stands in front of his former home

Nabizoda says it will take about $10,000 to rebuild the house - money he does not have

Now living in a small rental house, Nabizoda, 52, is trying to work as a taxi driver because there is no demand for carpentry, his usual profession.

Bad for business

The shockwaves of the

Taliban's brief takeover of the strategic city

- their first such victory in Afghanistan since they were ousted from power in 2001 - have hit the economy.

Hamdullah Danishi, Kunduz acting provincial governor, said at least 70 percent of the employable population has no work. The construction industry has completely stopped, while the number of jobs in the heavily agricultural-driven province, due to the looming winter, is drastically lower.

All 16 international humanitarian organizations with offices in Kunduz city closed during the October battle and not all have returned, or at least, not to the staff levels they had before. Danishi said this has dented incomes and eroded confidence in the city.

"UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan] will come soon. We are talking to them about establishing a new office near the airport with more security," Danishi said.

The central marketplace in Kunduz city

A month after the battle, the central marketplace in Kunduz city was bustling with buyers and sellers

Dominic Medley, UNAMA spokesperson, confirmed they would reopen an office in a new location in Kunduz early next year, but said some staff were already working from the city.

Merchants such as Abdul Qadir, a yarn seller, said the impact of the October conflict on his business has been small. After all, he's been taking losses all year.

"There's been a small drop in business since the war, but it's been falling all year," he said.

Gold merchant Muhammad Aleeb agreed, saying that business was down at least 10 percent since this time last year but only slightly lower since October.

Rebuilding with few resources

Danishi said beyond the loss of incomes, the people desperately need humanitarian help with basic food and winter-proof items, including for families who previously may not have been at risk.

"As a result of the battle, many people stayed indoors for some days and used a lot of the food supplies they had been storing for the winter months. They also spent a lot of their money when they fled," he said.

A taxi from Kunduz to Taloqan, the city in the nearby province of Takhar, is usually about 300 afghanis ($3). But during the days of heavy fighting it was 5,000 afghanis ($75) - a month's income for some, he said.

"About 25 shops were burned," Danishi said. "We promised to help them rebuild, but we did not receive any budget from the central government to do this, and we have no [provincial] budget for this, so they are rebuilding themselves."

Muhammad Aleeb in front of his gold shop

Muhammad Aleeb, a gold merchant, says business has taken a small hit since the battle for the city in October

The lament of no budget to help those in need is repeated by the provincial department of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Some 300 families per day come to apply for government assistance to no avail, the director, Sayed Abdulsalam Hashimi, said.

"We have no budget from the [central] government for assistance - they only pay some staff salaries. We've helped 3,000 families with some small food packages from the World Food Program, but that was just a packet of salt, some flour and a packet of beans," Hashimi said.

With clenched fists, Hashimi tugged at his coat lapels as he described how people are begging him for help, but he has nothing to give them.

"In my six and half years working in this position, this has been the toughest year for the Kunduz people. This is my most difficult year," he said.

His department estimated about 21,000 families - almost two-thirds of the city of 300,000 - fled the fighting that raged until mid-October. This is higher than the UNHCR's estimate of 13,000 displaced families, and higher still than the number cited by the provincial governor's office of 16,000 families.

Difficult recovery

Hashimi said at least 90 percent of the city's occupants are now back, while those who could afford it have stayed away. Those most at risk, according to the government, are the 166 families whose husbands and fathers were killed in the fighting, and the other 116 families whose male heads of family - traditionally, the income earners - were badly wounded.

Nizam Udin, a father of six, was among those waiting at the department to register for government assistance. In the early days of the Taliban takeover, shrapnel wounded his eight-year-old daughter in her leg, but because of the fighting in the streets he decided against trying to get her to hospital.

Sayed Nazin accompanies his wife and two of his four children to the Kunduz provincial department of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation

Sayed Nazin and his family applied for assistance from the Ministry of Refugees. They had fled during the fighting

"I stopped her bleeding with my own hands," he said. But by the seventh day of fighting, they ran out of food. As his daughter was well enough to travel, they went to stay with relatives in Badakhshan province. But as soon as the city was declared under the control of the government, his relatives asked him to leave because of the strain on their own resources.

"When I came back to Kunduz, our house was empty - thieves had taken everything. Everything was gone. I went to my bakery and there was nothing but a dead body in there," he said.

Now he is living on loans, trying to get enough to buy flour to restart his bakery business.

A new normal

Meanwhile,

all-out fighting in other parts of the province

has driven at least 3,000 newly displaced families from other districts to Kunduz city, Hashimi said.

Zaibunisa Rasikh arrived in Kunduz city 15 days earlier with her six children and extended family, including at least seven other adults, from the nearby district of Dasht-e-Archi, which was undergoing a "clearing operation" by Afghan military forces after four months of being under Taliban control.

"When the army finishes its operation we will go back. But now I need help. Whatever the government wants to give us, I will take. We need food to eat and help to pay rent," she said.

With an estimated 3,000 militants still at large who were involved in the Kunduz takeover, some residents wonder where they are now. But according to Danishi, life is mostly normal in the city.

"Our government workers are all here. Our schools are open. Our university is open. Definitely people have been affected by the battle, but what can they do? They don't have another place to go. This is their country, these are their homes. They are used to the fighting, they are not afraid," he said.

Zalmai Nabizoda would beg to differ.

"I am still scared. I am afraid it will happen again," he said. "But I am living with hope."

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