“The roads are safe,” the police chief of Kunduz province, Gen. M. Razaq Yaqobi, declares categorically. “Day and night.”
The map behind his desk suggests otherwise. It is covered in green and red dots. The green dots are police outposts; they fan out from the provincial capital, the city of Kunduz, in concentric circles, thinning out as they approach the edges of the province. The red dots are the forces of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a rebel leader who has opposed every Afghan government since the 1970s. On Yaqobi’s map, red dots line every major road in Kunduz.
“Kunduz city is under government control,” the provincial governor, engineer M. Omer, elaborates more cautiously an hour later. Shortly after our interview, I lose my cell phone reception. I assume it’s a glitch in the network. Later, I learn that the Taliban switches off the local cell-phone towers every night. No one can call for help until dawn. They say the Taliban owns the night in Kunduz. It’s unclear who owns the day.
“Let’s say this is Kunduz,” says Ahmadullah Daagh, the editor of the Kunduz magazine Afghanistan Today, pointing to a copy of his monthly. On the cover, a woman in a blue burqa is buying gold bracelets at a jeweler. Daagh draws invisible circles with his fingers all over the magazine: “Taliban, Taliban, Taliban, Taliban, Taliban.”
A tiny area, no larger than a quarter, is left in the center. Daagh points at it: “Government,” he says. “What can it do?”
Somewhere inside that dot of impotent government in Kunduz is a man named Meher Ali. I like him right away. He has a nice smile under a graying mustache, kind eyes, and horizontal wrinkles on his forehead to suggest that he spends a lot of time in melancholy.
Meher Ali is the head of the local department of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees. All day long, he sits in his crepuscular office in a tired brown suit over a pale-blue shirt. Three pink bouquets of plastic flowers on his desk clash with the beige window curtains, which are always drawn. Three crystal candy bowls, one next to each bouquet, stand empty.
There are, by Meher Ali’s estimation, 222,000 refugees in this province of 1.2 million people. Last year, he received enough funding to hand out blankets and mattresses to about 400; he distributed those at the onset of winter.
This year, he has received no funding at all.
“They need food. Flour, rice, oil, tea. Medicine. We have nothing to help them with,” Meher Ali tells me, and shows me the empty palms of his small hands, as if to prove he has nothing.
Some of the refugees have returned from exile in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran after the U.S.-led war began in 2001 but found the lands that once had belonged to them taken by someone else. Others were displaced from their homes by the cycle of ethnic and tribal revenge that followed the fall of the Taliban regime. They have settled in camps, in abandoned villages, in homes they have hastily slapped together with clay and straw on tiny parcels of land the government has given them. Most of the refugees are unemployed.
I imagine the indigence of these refugees easily. Last week in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin, in neighboring Balkh province, I met families who had returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the Afghan government promised them housing and jobs. Instead, the government had dumped them in a tract of salty desert, where nothing will ever grow, where there are no jobs, no electricity, no doctors. The refugees told me their children have been dying of cold. I tell this to Meher Ali, and he nods that yes, yes, that, sadly, is quite common. In Kunduz, children of refugees have been dying of cold, too. But he can do nothing about it.
How exactly they survive at all is unclear, Meher Ali says, because no government surveyor, or relief worker, can visit the refugees where they live. Most live in areas that have fallen under Taliban control in recent months: no-go zones for government officials and security forces. Many live just east of the city of Kunduz, in Chardara, where the Taliban infamously hijacked two NATO fuel tankers last September, provoking a U.S. airstrike that killed up to 142 people, mostly civilians. Another village, Gor Teppah, about 10 miles northwest from the provincial capital, is home to some 1,200 refugees — and “about 23 Chechen and Uzbek fighters, foreign fighters from al Qaeda,” according to General Yaqobi.
This is no coincidence, Meher Ali says. He believes — and this is a sentiment I have heard from many quarters — that the refugees’ desperation, their unutterable poverty, and their sense of abandonment by the government are prompting them to embrace the Taliban, giving rise to the return of the Islamist militia.
“People come here and say: ‘You promised to help us; where is your help?’ They call us liars. They say: ‘You have betrayed us,'” he says.
“Since last year, we haven’t had any contact with them. For all we know, they have joined the Taliban.”
Meher Ali raises his palms toward me again: still empty. Behind one of his beige curtains, a trapped fly thrashes against the window glass, drones, thrashes again.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.