HERAT -- Afghan forces have been providing aid and clearing land mines in areas in western Afghanistan cut off by the Taliban, who are besieging locals to put pressure on the government.
In Pashtun Zarghun District, Herat Province, the Taliban besieged 9,000 civilians in Deh Qarya of the Taqcha Valley for five months, preventing civilians from leaving and planting land mines on roads leading to the area.
Joint security forces launched operations on November 26 to clear the mines and supply food and medicine to the residents of the area.
"The Taliban planted large mines along all the roads blocking the movement of children, the elderly, women, patients and residents of villages in the Taqcha Valley for five months, imposing a siege," said Herat Provincial Chief of Police Gen. Aminullah Amarkhil.
"There was nothing to eat in these villages. If the security forces hadn't launched these operations and come to these areas, a human disaster could have happened," he said.
"The security forces opened all the roads of these areas," added Amarkhil. "Dozens of mines the Taliban had planted along the roads leading to Taqcha Valley were defused by technical teams."
A number of the elderly and children perished from starvation and disease, he said.
"Roads were opened... and the residents of the Taqcha Valley went to Pashtun Zarghun District centre and Herat city to buy the food they needed," Amarkhil said. "Also, they transported their walnut crops to the city [Herat] to sell."
"The goal of these operations was to clear the roads of the Taqcha Valley and supply food and medicine to the residents of the valley," said Herat Governor Abdul Qayum Rahimi.
"This year, the residents of Taqcha had a great harvest of walnuts. Now, they can transport their products to the city, where they can sell them," he said.
"The first batch of aid has reached the population, and the following batch will soon arrive," he added. "Our goal is to rescue the population from the atrocities of the Taliban and hunger."
The people of Taqcha are government supporters who have always stood against the Taliban, and the militants took their revenge by scattering land mines on their roads and starving them, Rahimi said.
Meanwhile, on December 5, the Afghan air force supplied 35 tonnes of food and two tonnes of medicine to the residents of Jawand District of Badghis Province, which has also been under siege by the Taliban.
The Taliban planted land mines along the roads going to the district, which has blocked civilians and security forces from reaching it by land for almost one and a half years.
The aid package included rice, flour, oil, medicine and other food items, said Badghis deputy governor Faiz Muhammad Mirzazada.
"The Taliban have planted mines along the roads of Jawand District due to which the residents of the district suffered from severe poverty and hunger," he said.
"The Afghan government takes responsibility for every Afghan citizen, and it supplies aid wherever he [or she] needs it," said Mirzazada.
Blockade of civilians
Residents of the Taqcha Valley said a number of their relatives lost their lives from starvation and disease as a result of the Taliban's actions.
"The Taliban had blocked all the roads serving 9,000 civilians for five months, and they didn't allow any travel on these roads," said Ali Ahmad, a resident of Pashtun Zarghun District of Herat Province. This was a major issue as locals "weren't able to even take patients to the hospital".
Four patients in critical condition lost their lives because the Taliban had blocked the roads, he said.
"Now, all the roads are open, allowing travel and the transport of food and other necessities from other areas," Ali added.
"We starved for five months as we didn't have anything to eat," said Abdul Qudus, another resident of Pashtun Zarghun District. "Around 10 children died in our village because there was no medicine and no doctor."
"I have a family of 15, and we were hungry for a few months," he added. "We are thankful to the security forces who came to help us and cleared mines from our roads."
"The Taliban killed 25 residents of the Taqcha Valley in recent years as they always attack our villages," said Amir Jan, another local.
"Taqcha is an important [strategic] point, and the Taliban have tried to capture it, but the residents have stood against them and don't allow them to."
"The Taliban oppressed us greatly," he added. "They didn't allow farmers to go out and cultivate their farms. I call on the security forces to destroy the Taliban so that we can live in comfort."
Taking civilians hostage
The Taliban have besieged other areas in Herat, Farah and Baghdis provinces, trapping local residents to put pressure on the government, say officials.
"All the roads of Pusht-e-Koh District of Farah Province that the civilians used to travel on have been seeded with land mines by the Taliban for two months, causing a grave situation in the district," Dadullah Qani, a member of the Farah provincial council, said on December 2.
Locals there cannot leave their houses, he said.
"The Taliban have besieged the district, and they always attack the district centre," he added.
"It is a breach of international humanitarian law that the Taliban use civilians [as a pressure point] in their fighting," said Sayed Ashraf Sadaat, a civil society activist in Herat city.
"It is a matter of concern that the Taliban hold certain districts hostage ... and that they [the inhabitants] suffer from intense hunger as they are under economic siege," said Sadaat
"Winter is around the corner, and the rain and snow will block even more roads in the districts," he added.
"The current season is the best time to satisfy the public's needs," he said. "When the Taliban block the roads by planting land mines ... the residents face serious hunger in the winter."