Taxis turned into ambulances ferry wounded civilians out of the combat zone in southern Afghanistan, but one man's long trip to a hospital began with a two-hour wheelbarrow ride.
Mohammad's legs were peppered with shrapnel when a bomb exploded nearby. His brother found him unconscious and lifted him into the only thing he could find, pushing him in the wheelbarrow before he flagged a taxi.
Mohammad, who is from the Nad Ali district around Marjah, is one of 40 civilians treated at Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah since the Afghan-NATO offensive in Marjah began on Feb. 13. Both of his legs were in casts. Steel pins protruded from his right leg.
Most of the wounded civilians recuperating at the whitewashed Italian-run hospital said their injuries were caused by "the foreign soldiers" — a claim that does not bode well for international and Afghan forces who are trying to get residents to renounce the Taliban and embrace the Afghan government.
Thousands trapped by fighting
Bernard Metraux, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Helmand province, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that as many as 40,000 people trapped by fighting in and around Marjah have little to no access to medical care.
The taxi-ambulance transport strategy took several rounds of painstaking negotiations with all sides in the conflict including Taliban fighters, who at times helped navigate the wounded through minefields to get them to medical care, he said. The taxis managed to transport about 30 wounded to Lashkar Gah, 20 miles (30 kilometers) northeast of Marjah.
"All the taxi drivers can access some areas, but we could only evacuate a very small number," Metraux said in the dusty provincial capital.
He added that about 400 families from the area fled to Lashkar Gah before the fighting began, while another 300 families went to neighboring Nimroz province. If they return, they'll face explosives that militants have hidden in compounds and doorways.
Metraux said an accurate toll of civilians killed or wounded in military assault will not be known until health officials can move freely in the area.
Pinning down a toll will be difficult in an area where the line between civilian and Taliban is a murky one. For many of those interviewed by The AP, the Taliban who are fighting coalition forces are villagers, underscoring the dilemma international forces face trying to rout the Afghan government's armed opposition.
"There is no difference between Taliban and the civilian people. The Taliban are the rural people. They are our people," said Musa Jan, who arrived a week ago from Marjah. He spoke to the AP outside a makeshift warehouse in Lashkar Gah where the government was distributing essentials to war victims.
‘That was all of our money’
Jan and 25 members of his family escaped the fighting by piling into a three-taxi convoy.
"The fight was continuing when we were trying to get out," said Jan, who said he paid about $35 for each of the three taxis. "That was all our money, and now we have to come here and beg."
Jan said his neighbors house was bombed by an aircraft, killing five occupants inside, including children.
On the hospital lawn, three wounded civilians took turns explaining how their injuries were caused by either aircraft bombardments or shooting from "foreign soldiers." They didn't know the nationalities of the soldiers, and it was not clear how they identified them as foreign.
Sayed Lal said he was going to his home when he was hit. "They shot me. They came at night. They were foreigners," he said. "I was outside in the field with a friend."
Lal's legs were covered with a thin white shawl. He fidgeted with his black beard as he told of three other villagers he claimed had been injured.
Twenty-two-year-old Assadullah, sporting a closely cropped beard, said he was on his motorcycle when "Americans fired at me."
"I don't know why they shot at me," said Assadullah whose arm was shattered by bullets. "I didn't even know they were there."
‘We are not unhappy with the Taliban’
Abdul Hamid, 12, said a raid conducted by a party of "foreign soldiers" opened fire outside his house.
"I was in front of my house, and they were running and shooting," the boy said. "I tried to get back into my house, but they shot me in the leg, and there were more bullets, and they shot me again in my belly. Near me some other people fell into a canal. Then they called a plane and they bombarded."
Hamid said that afterward, the troops said one person outside the house was a Taliban fighter. "He wasn't," the boy said. "He was a civilian."
Sultan Mohammed who fled last Friday from Marjah said he had to walk for several hours before a motorcyclist gave him a lift. He said the Taliban fled when the soldiers came to his area.
"But who are the Taliban? They are the rural people," he said.
Mohammed said residents had not had problems from the Taliban — that they brought security to the area.
"We were not unhappy with the Taliban," he said. "The government didn't do anything for us. Before the government didn't help us."