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After decades of war, an Afghan village mourns its losses

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a village southwest of Kabul, families who support the Taliban once lived alongside families who did not. And in the past year, as NPR's Diaa Hadid found in a recent visit, both sides have paid dearly in Afghanistan's decades of war.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The drive to the village of Patan Khel from the Afghan capital begins on a road gouged with holes from IEDs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

HADID: The explosives were planted by Taliban fighters to hit Afghan forces and Western troops over the past two decades. The road is also flagged by graves of Taliban fighters. They're marked with small flags hoisted on poles - white flags, green, red, even leopard print. The colorful cloth signifies a man who died young. Many of those fighters came from places like Patan Khel. To get there, we veer off the highway, pass a valley and drive through a creek bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

HADID: And we've reached the mud-brick home of Ahmed Shah. At 40, he's a village elder.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SHUTTING)

HADID: NPR producer Fazelminallah Qazizai introduces us.

FAZELMINALLAH QAZIZAI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Ahmed Shah has just returned from his apple orchard, and he invites us in. He's gathered his cousins to meet us. And over lunch, he says, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, we were elated.

AHMED SHAH: (Through interpreter) It was not possible but with the help of God.

HADID: They celebrated what they saw as an end of an American occupation of their land and the end of a Western-backed government they saw as lackeys.

SHAH: (Through interpreter) Lots of people slaughtered cows, sheeps, goats along the highway.

HADID: Shah's family paid dearly in service of that Taliban victory. Two of his brothers were Taliban fighters who were killed six years ago.

SHAH: (Through interpreter) They went to the main highway and ambushed the enemy. When they were returning to the village, a drone fired missiles and killed them all.

HADID: His brothers' deaths shook the village. This is Shah's cousin, Masoud Sultani.

MASOUD SULTANI: (Through interpreter) My brother stepped in to take their place after they died.

HADID: Sultani's brother also became a Taliban fighter, and he, too, was killed.

SULTANI: (Through interpreter) It was painful for us. He was my brother, and he was so young. But he died honorably, and that made it easier for us.

HADID: The cousins say they'd fight again if they have to, but they hope that the Taliban's rule will endure.

SULTANI: (Through interpreter) We wanted the American occupation to end, and God gave us that. We wanted to establish an Islamic system, and for the rest, God is kind. All problems can be solved.

HADID: But they say there can be no compromise with Afghans who fought them. And the message is clear. In Patan Khel, the villagers who did fight against the Taliban have fled, fearing retribution. Shah expresses no sympathy for them - "So I ask, you grieve for your brothers. Do you think those families who you fought also grieve for their sons who were killed?"

SHAH: (Through interpreter) I'm sure those people feel more pain than us because we lost our men fighting for the sake of Islam and Afghanistan, so we are comforted by that. What did their men die for?

HADID: To hear from those who lost their loved ones fighting the Taliban, we return to the highway, juddering over those potholes and past those fluttering flags. And we meet Mohammad Qassim in a busy market town. He's the oldest of six brothers. There used to be six. One of his brothers served in the Afghan army fighting the Taliban. He was killed last year by an explosive planted near a checkpoint he was manning.

MOHAMMAD QASSIM: (Through interpreter) (Crying) He was my beloved brother. He was the backbone of this family.

HADID: But that's not the only brother Qassim lost. His younger brother ran away to join the Taliban.

QASSIM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Six months later, he was killed by a drone strike. Mohammad Qassim says, the war has brought us disaster.

QASSIM: (Through interpreter) In our village, you will see widows and orphans. Their fathers were killed in the fighting. Now they're destitute.

HADID: And it seems, sidelined, by a group still savoring victory as others mourn their losses. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Patan Khel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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