Forces of Fear: US as Bad as Taliban, Refugees Claim
Sayed Mohammad is preparing to leave his home in Marja with his children, wife and brother.
All of them are piled into a tractor alongside some furniture and three chickens.
Mohammad's dirty turban signals his poverty, and his four children, covered in dust, look frightened and try to hide in their mother's arms.
"Marja will never be secure," he said. "In the past, there was only Taliban oppression, but now the government and foreigners have also joined in. I don't know who is more cruel. I had to leave Marja."
Pale-faced and angry, Mohammad claimed that the Taliban warn they will soon triumph in Marja, and have called for residents to send their brothers and sons to fight in the cause of jihad.
"I don't want my poor brother to be killed," he said.
Some 15,000 Afghan and international troops forced 2,000 Taliban fighters to retreat from their stronghold of Marja in Helmand province earlier this year during Operation Moshtarak.
After the offensive, aimed at taking control of a major heroin-producing area, the Afghan defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, told reporters, "Our objectives are to strengthen government control in Marja, to reconstruct Marja and to make the Marja people secure."
But the deteriorating security situation in the province is now causing increasing numbers of Marja residents to flee. Caught between fear of the foreign forces and counter-attacks by Taliban fighters, many say they have no choice but to seek refuge in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
According to the Red Cross office in Helmand, most of the displaced are poor families who left their homes for Lashkar Gah due to security concerns.
The head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society's Helmand office, Ahmadullah Ahmadi, said 117 families left in early May alone and he warned that the situation was deteriorating.
"People are living in very bad conditions; there are no jobs, the fighting is starting again, and this situation has compelled the residents to leave Marja, he said. "We don't have enough resources to help them."
Crossing the bridge over the Helmand river in a small Mazda lorry filled with children and women wearing green burqas, Khan Zaman said he was moving to Lashkar Gah because his house had been repeatedly searched by American troops.
"It was terrifying. One day they might accuse me of being a Taliban or al-Qaeda member and send me to Guantanamo prison. So I have to leave," he said.
A spokesman for US forces could not be reached for comment on the charge but the Marja district governor, Haji Mohammad Zaher, has denied the existence of any such problem.
At a news conference in early May, he told journalists that reports of internally displaced residents were false.
"These families are mainly those who have committed major crimes in the past. Now, when the area is under government control, they do not feel safe and flee the district," he insisted.
Colonel Ghulam Sakhi, head of the public order department in Marja, also claimed the situation in Marja was satisfactory. He said that those who were leaving the province were not residents.
"I can show you the list of 16 families who had migrated from Uruzgan during Taliban rule and were active in the poppy trade. Now they have harvested their poppy and left Marja. This has nothing to do with the security situation in Marja," he said.
However, a source close to the Marja district governor, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that security conditions were deteriorating and people were leaving the district.
"The Taliban are changing their tactics day by day; they keep planting mines and are also conducting small-arms attacks, but they mainly put pressure on those who have connections with the government," he said.
Since the beginning of Operation Moshtarak, 13 tribal elders have been assassinated by the Taliban for assisting the government, according to security sources.
The head of the Helmand rural rehabilitation and development department, Mohammad Omer Qani, also said that people were leaving Marja because of the troubles they face.
"Those leaving Marja are not government officials or Taliban fighters who should be afraid of their criminal deeds. The truth is that they are faced with challenges and everybody is making trouble for them," he said.
This article is published courtesy of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.