KHAKAI, Afghanistan — There is no-one drinking tea or tending animals outside their homes in Khakai, one of the ghost villages of southern Afghanistan -- just lots of collapsed mud walls and an eerie quiet.
"It's totally empty," said Bryan Baker, a medic accompanying a US-Afghan military patrol searching for landmines among collapsed mud houses. "Weird place."
Up to 36,000 Afghans have fled a US-led offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, abandoning their homes and crops and leaving behind a string of deserted villages.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says they were displaced principally from three districts of Kandahar province since the operation started last April.
The region is seen as one of the most important and dangerous in the battle against the Taliban, whose leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was born in Kandahar and which has its roots in the city, the biggest in southern Afghanistan.
Abdul Ghafar, a farmer from Zhari district, which includes Khakai and is one of the worst affected, is now living in an impoverished area of Kandahar city since fleeing his village six months ago.
"We had to leave our home and farms under pressure from Taliban attacks and bombardments by foreign forces. We were fearing for our lives," he told AFP.
"I lost all my crops and left everything behind. Everything was destroyed. My home has been destroyed. The walls around my land collapsed. All my money was spent on our food here and now we have nothing."
Abdullah Jan, also originally from Zhari but now living in Kandahar city, added: "There was fighting every day, the Taliban were stopping by and asking for food and money all the time. No one has helped us out."
The UNHCR's 36,000 estimate covers only those Afghans who, like the two men, have stayed within Kandahar province, not those who have left it altogether.
"These figures are estimates only as the conflict areas of origin of the displaced are inaccessible," a UNHCR official told AFP. "Families are reported to have fled outside the southern region and data is unavailable."
The statistic is thought to represent a third of all Afghans displaced by the war last year and most of those fleeing come from three districts -- Zhari, Arghandab and Panjwayi -- with a combined population of only 128,000.
Zhari is traditional terrain for the Taliban and in Khakai, the patrol from the US Army's 101st Airborne Division found a former Taliban bunker and a recently planted improvised explosive device (IED).
"We were lucky, dude!" exclaimed Sergeant Zack Crawford, on discovering the bomb.
They also came across two men tending to a small plot of land amid the desolation. Most of the village's inhabitants were subsistence farmers and these men have returned to try and scavenge something of their livelihood.
"Everyone left because of the war. I now live in Kandahar city but I come back every day to tend my field," said one of them, Door Jan, who travels dozens of kilometres per day.
US soldiers in the area are hard-headed about the impact of the fighting.
Captain Brett Matzenbacher of 101st Airborne, commanding officer of an outpost in Zhari, summarised the situation: "It was a battlefield here and all those who could leave have left the area.
"The local leaders have all left. We start from nothing."
Now that winter has set in and fighting has eased, international authorities are seeking to persuade locals to return by distributing food and paying them to repair damaged houses, roads and irrigation canals.
But many people fear the Taliban will target the area during the traditional spring offensive which could start in a couple of months.
"A lot of people don't want to be the first to come back," said Matzenbacher. "The Taliban will be back in the spring."