Afghans flock to Kandahar city camp as fighting rages in the countryside
Mohammad Sadeq returned to his home on the outskirts of Kandahar city this week to discover it had new occupants - the Taliban.
"They didn't even allow me to enter," he told AFP Tuesday at a camp for displaced people inside Afghanistan's second-biggest city.
Sadeq is one of tens of thousands of Afghans recently uprooted by fighting between the Taliban and government forces that has intensified as the last foreign troops complete their withdrawal after 20 years.
This week thousands have made their way by car, bus, truck and on foot to Kandahar - preferring an uncertain future in a basic city camp to braving the fighting.
Local officials said more than 150,000 had arrived just this month.
"I lost two sons in an explosion just in front of my house," said Bibi Aisha, another internal refugee now living in the grounds of a government centre for hajj pilgrims near Kandahar airport.
"The streets in my neighbourhood were full of human flesh," she added.
Humanitarian organisations warn of a major crisis in coming months as the Taliban continue a sweeping offensive that has so far gobbled up a vast swath of the north.
Government forces have abandoned some rural districts without a fight, but are digging in to defend provincial capitals - including Kandahar - even as the insurgents tighten a noose around the cities.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban, from where the hard-line Islamic group rose to power in 1996 - before controlling most of the country by 2001, when the US-led forces invaded.
The fall of the city would be a disaster for the government, splitting the country into two before winter, when retaking lost territory is particularly difficult.
The fight for Kandahar is also a microcosm of the battle for the rest of the country.
Where the Taliban take over without a fight - particularly in deeply conservative rural areas - life continues much as before.
But in more developed parts defended by government troops, civilians are being forced to flee to escape often brutal clashes.
At the camp near Kandahar airport on Tuesday, scores of children were playing in the dust as women boiled water for tea on makeshift stoves.
A young boy washed clothes in a plastic tub as a group of old men sipped green tea from tiny glasses, waving away a constant assault of flies.
The UN refugee agency says hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been displaced internally this year alone, and warns that unless the fighting stops, the crisis could spill over to Afghanistan's neighbours.
Pakistan and Iran, in particular, were home to millions of Afghan refugees who fled the decade-long Soviet occupation and the Taliban regime in the 1990s.
The overcrowding and rudimentary conditions at newly sprouted camps in Kandahar are already causing health problems.
"We are treating between 250 and 300 patients every day," doctor Mohammad Aref Shekib told AFP.
"A lot of them are children suffering from diarrhoea, flu and skin diseases. We are overwhelmed."
Many in the camp expressed bewilderment at their predicament - particularly since the Taliban's sworn enemy, the US-led forces that overthrew them, have all but gone.
"Who are they fighting against?" asked a woman named Feroza.
"There is no America anymore, no infidels. All the people they evicted from their homes are Muslim."
"The civilians are suffering most," said Sayed Mohammad, his family alongside him.
"We are facing many challenges. Our children and women left home with just a few clothes."
Sadeq, whose house was occupied by the insurgents, fled his home in the middle of a battle.
He said he was left with nothing.
"Bullets and rockets were hitting our house," he said. "We had to flee."