Written by Omar Hamid for CNN
Baghlan has been under strain for years.
An angry population is confronting foreign forces here and elsewhere in Afghanistan as the Taliban tighten their grip.
But there’s something else at play that could upend the fight against the Taliban.
A recent attack in the city of Baghlan is symbolic of the security threat facing the Taliban.
On January 29, militants stormed a bazaar in the northern Baghlan province, killing more than a dozen civilians and triggering a gunbattle with security forces that lasted more than 20 hours.
The crowd fled the market, bolting to the hinterlands and renting out their cars. Some lost contact with loved ones and caught fire.
The siege, and the shootout that followed, was a devastating display of the Taliban’s reach.
CNN caught up with people in the area who witnessed the attack and had a sense of what drove them to flee.
Scene of attack
Many saw the details of the attack unfold:
“Gunfire began shortly after 1 p.m. when the sun was high in the sky,” said Yusuf, who sells vegetables in the bazaar.
“We didn’t know what was happening. But after six hours, the people in my shop started running toward the exit, claiming that they were being shot at. Those who stayed behind were later released when security forces captured the facility.”
Witness: ‘We saw dead bodies’
Sahar, who sells vegetables in the area, said the attack was delayed due to a lull in Taliban activity and ISIS activity during the same time.
“At around 9 p.m., one of the ISIS cars broke through a checkpoint from the north and got through into the bazaar. When the fighting began, people fled the building and stayed in their cars. At 10 p.m., they heard gunshots and went to check on them,” she said.
“We saw dead bodies and injured people were being evacuated.”
Another witness said the market had closed earlier that day for a wedding. “A few shopkeepers told their clients to stay home until further notice.”
Simultaneous bombings in Balkh and Helmand
But the attack was just the beginning of the attacks.
Less than an hour later, another series of explosions rocked the central city of Balkh.
The explosions, which Afghan and American officials said were suicide attacks by ISIS, killed more than 20 people and wounded another 60, according to local officials.
Witnesses said both sets of explosions were unprovoked, causing panic among residents in Baghlan.
The attacks — both fanned out and at different moments — threatened to distract from the earlier attack in Baghlan.
Baghlan is strategically important to ISIS-K, the Taliban and to foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Logistical hubs for supplies and troops are located here. The bazaar sits near the border with Tajikistan.
The market also attracts many people from Afghanistan’s north, who pass through the sprawling area to reach nearby Dohuk province, which has a large Kurdish population and is friendly to ISIS.
Looking for answers
So what’s driving people to leave their homes so quickly and leave in the middle of the night?
They wanted an explanation.
“I have spent my whole life in the market and I have seen two wars. But I haven’t been through something like this before,” said Yusuf.
Sahar also feels the fear of the Taliban.
“The Taliban staged attacks here before and they scare you. That’s why I ran away,” she said.
‘No time to think’
According to Syrian refugee Abdul Ghani, in the chaos of the incident, he lost track of his wife and five-year-old daughter.
“I have no time to think about anything or ask for help,” he said.
Some interviewed said they had been aware of the possibility of a Taliban attack in Baghlan, but were still surprised.
“They always held large rallies in our area. They always hold protests that can cause more problems for us,” said Abdul Qanbar.
“I have been here for five years. I am an educated person and have studied in a university. But my kids didn’t get any education as teachers told us not to send them to school and to stay home.
“Even though these people have kids, they don’t teach them anything,” he said.
Karimullah, a Baghlan resident, said this attack should strengthen the determination of people against the Taliban.
“Nowadays, security officials are trying to talk to us, but we want security for us also. I am worried for the years to come.”