A harvest stained with a son’s blood after a short-lived Afghan truce

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KABUL (Reuters) – Fourteen-year old Imranullah was killed this week as he harvested wheat in his family’s field in eastern Afghanistan and was caught in the crossfire between the Afghan military and the Taliban.

Grieving father Irshad Khan told Reuters he was torn between harvesting the remaining wheat to feed his family or protecting his son’s memory and staying safe following the break-down of a brief truce.  

“What father can dare to go and bring the wheat that is stained with his son’s blood?” Khan said.

The residents of Alingar district, where Khan lives in eastern Laghman province, had hoped for a lull in the fighting after a local ceasefire was agreed to allow farmers to harvest their wheat and for students to sit exams.

But only two days into the ceasefire, the insurgents ended the truce in a grim indication of the emboldened Taliban’s strategy of ramping up attacks as the United States withdraws its troops.

A Taliban spokesman denied responsibility, accusing the Afghan government forces of being behind the death of civilians and damage to wheat.

Local residents and elders have said the Taliban launched attacks in the area first, prompting Afghan government forces to respond. Afghanistan’s defence department did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Khan’s loss is one of many as violence displaces families, disrupts work and agriculture, and leads to civilian casualties.

In Alingar, hundreds of people have fled. Many others are struggling to harvest the crops they desperately need as drought and conflict plunge the country into food insecurity, humanitarian agencies say.

A resident of Alingar, who gave his name only as Faizanullah for security reasons, sent his three children to the capital as fighting began, meaning they would miss their school exams, but he hoped they would be safer there.

“My children can take their exams later but I can’t put their lives in danger,” he told Reuters by phone, the sound of gunfire in the background. “(I am concerned about) the negative impact of the fighting on the mental health of our children, these memories will hurt them their whole lives.”

STALLED PEACE TALKS, FOREIGN FORCES TO LEAVE

Eastern Laghman province is one of the worst hit by the heavy fighting that has intensified around the country ahead of a Sept. 11 withdrawal of foreign forces, while peace talks in Doha have largely stalled.

Around 2,000 families in Laghman have been displaced, local officials say.

The Taliban captured and held one district during the last week – and the insurgents have been attempting to close in on the provincial capital, taking around 20 checkpoints and small bases in the process.

Afghan forces have fought back, so far holding the capital and taking back some checkpoints.

The firing from both sides is devastating for civilians.

Forty farmers in Alingar, from where the Taliban is launching attacks, reported their wheat crops have been severely damaged and five farmers were killed while trying to harvest, a local agriculture official said.

Many students have missed their annual exams as teachers and students stay home in fear. Some villages resemble ghost towns, locals said, as all women and children and many men have left.

“Only one man in each family remained in their house to supervise it as they could take almost nothing from their belongings. Most of the people fled their areas with only one pair of clothes,” Abdul Khaliq, resident of Shaikhan village, said.

Khan, grieving for his son and fearing further fighting, faces the impossible choice of risking his life in the field where his son died or his family going hungry.

“I say to myself: what are you doing? What will you eat and what will you give to the rest of your family if you don’t collect and bring it home?” he said. “Now I am waiting and praying to Allah to stop the fighting.”