IS militants launched a massive assault on various parts of the Kot district in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province last month. Dozens of villagers were killed and hundreds displaced.
In the remote village of Qalajaat, Niaz Bibi watched as IS fighters invaded her home and murdered five of her nine sons, who lived together in their family house.
“They first shot them and then beheaded them,” Bibi, a mother of 12, told VOA in a telephone interview.
The house was targeted, family members told VOA, because some of Bibi’s sons were affiliated with the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a resident force set up by Afghan government to help protect villages from insurgents.
IS and Taliban militants have been targeting Afghan local police members who play an instrumental role in maintaining the government's authority in isolated areas. The Afghan government estimates it has around 30,000 ALP members.
'Burns my heart'
The restive Kot district, which borders Pakistan and has about 160,000 residents, has been hard-hit by IS militant activities recently. In some areas, the group has closed public schools and replaced them with its own schools and religious seminaries.
One of Bibi’s surviving sons and one of her 30 grandchildren were seriously wounded in the attack on their house. A few days earlier, Bibi’s oldest son, who was also affiliated with the police force, also was killed by IS.
“We were targeted because we had joined the local police force to protect our homes and villages,” said Bibi’s injured son, Ateeq Ullah.
The family’s accounts were confirmed to VOA by the local governor.
Surviving family members fled after the attacks.
The Islamic State militants "burned our villages and looted our properties,” Bibi said. The woman added she never had a chance to bury her sons but was grateful that other villagers gave them a proper burial.
“Only Allah knows what I am going through,” she told VOA. “What can I do? It burns my heart.”
Bibi is trying to care for her orphaned grandchildren and her daughters-in-law.
“My sons were married. They left behind widows and 30 young boys and girls,” she said.
Mourning fathers, brothers
Afghanistan is a patriarchal society where men are in charge of the family and are the primary bread winners. When men die, in many cases women are not allowed to remarry or go back to their parents. Mothers and children are often left destitute.
“I miss my father. I cry as I remember him,” said 9-year-old Rahela, one of Bibi’s orphaned grandchildren.
Rahela told VOA that she attended a village school before the family fled. Along with four siblings and several cousins, Rahela temporarily dropped out of school while the family was in hiding.
After weeks of battles against IS, the Afghan government said this week that the area was cleared of IS.
But Bibi’s family remains traumatized and wants help.
“I can hardly cope with the situation. I am under extreme pressure [with] 30 orphans, a wounded brother and nephew, homelessness, security threats….” surviving brother Sayed Amin told VOA.
“Now that we have lost everything, we strongly demand the government to provide us protection and a place to live in.”
Fearing for the future
Provincial authorities say Bibi’s family will not be abandoned, because their loved ones "sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country.”
Authorities have provided basic emergency assistance to the family, including 100,000 Afs ($1,460) for each dead relative and 50,000 Afs ($730) for each wounded one, said Nangarhar’s governor, Salim Khan Kunduzi.
The family also has received clothes, tents and food supplies, the governor said.
He told VOA the provincial government was planning to provide free education and boarding to the orphans through the Department of Social Affairs.
Attaullah Khogyani, the governor's representative, told VOA that security forces have killed more than 120 IS fighters, including senior commanders, and have captured a key IS base.
But Bibi knows that IS will not give up easily and she fears a return. She hears that IS is targeting her remaining three sons and have prepared suicide bombers for the mission.