Afghanistan's war is killing and maiming record numbers of civilians, according to a new report released by the UN which shows casualty figures surging following the withdrawal of Nato-led combat forces.
In 2015, the UN recorded 3,545 civilian deaths and 7,457 injured — the highest number of total civilian casualties in a single year in Afghanistan since its records began in 2009.
Women and children were often affected, making up 50 per cent of victims overall.
"Unprecedented numbers of children were needlessly killed and injured last year – one in four casualties in 2015 was a child,” said Danielle Bell, of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. “Other children suffered the loss of parents, and increasingly their mothers, sisters, and female role models – one in 10 casualties was a woman.”
Among those who understand the toll is Jamakhan, a 45 year old Afghan man from Helmand who uses only one name. He carries in his pocket a small memento of his dead brother; a grainy, black-and-white passport photo.
One night last year, Jamakhan’s family, who are farmers, suddenly heard drones circling over their home in the remote district of Kajaki in Helmand.
Taliban insurgents had snuck into their village to take cover, and an intense firefight broke out.
The family doesn’t know whether it was a mortar or aerial bomb that struck their home, but the force destroyed the house. Jamakhan’s brother was killed instantly, and three young children were wounded by shrapnel.
“I lost everything that night,” said Jamakhan’s mother, Bibi Awa. “As a mother, it was the most difficult time of my life.”
The number of casualties reflects a desperately uncertain time for Afghanistan after more than 14 years of conflict.
Since 2009, the UN has recorded 58,736 civilian casualties in the country — a shocking number, that “does not convey what is in reality a daily horror and source of fear for Afghan civilians,” according to Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
For civilians, the southern region of Afghanistan, including Helmand province, continues to be the deadliest.
Thousands of British troops were stationed in Helmand until October 2014.
After the withdrawal of British and other Nato combat forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the Taliban pushed aggressively for territory across the country, capturing 24 districts in 2015 alone.
As Afghan security forces attempted to push back the Taliban and other anti-government groups such as Isil, fierce ground battles saw civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire.
Although anti-government groups were held responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, the UN also recorded an alarming 28 per cent increase in the number of Afghans wounded or killed by pro-government forces in ground engagements.
“All sides are at fault,” said Jamakhan. “We do not blame just the foreigners, or the Afghans, or the Taliban. We are blaming all sides….all of them have no value for human life.”
The UN also warned of a disturbing rise in targeted killings, with 850 deaths recorded. The vast majority of the murders were carried out by the Taliban, targeting aid workers, tribal elders, mullahs and civilian government officials.
While the Taliban often claim they do not harm ordinary civilians, the UN report “should serve as an indictment; these are war crimes, despite whatever claims they make about wanting to spare civilians,” said Ms Gossman of Human Rights Watch.