Afghanistan’s new poor line up for aid to survive as food crisis rages

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Many of the people waiting for help in Khwaja Rawash, a middle-class neighborhood near Kabul International Airport, are Afghanistan’s new poor. Before, they had decent jobs; now they depend on international aid to survive. The 3,800 Afghans (just over $40) they receive from the WFP will help them get through the month.

It’s calmer than it was on the first day of distributions this month in that district, Khalid Ahmadzai, a WFP coordinating partner at the site, told CNN. Back then, on May 11, people were climbing the walls to get in. WFP says it assisted 3,000 households in this district on the first day, with each household numbering an average of seven people.

Last Sunday, around 700 people waited patiently for up to two hours before their IDs were checked and the money released.

Ahmadzai says people are desperate. “A few days ago a woman came to me and said, ‘I want to give you my son for 16,000 Afghans,'” he said, a sum amounting to about $175. “She was crying . It’s the worst feeling I’ve had in my life.”

He added: “Her son was maybe three or four years old… The feeling she had of his hunger and the economic situation that they had, she was at a stage to ask to sell her son.”

Armed Taliban fighters, who once attacked the Afghan capital, now provide security at the food distribution center.

Their presence highlights a cruel irony articulated by Azima, a teacher in the queue, who receives help for the first time in her life. She says the security situation has improved since the Taliban took over Kabul last year: “The suicide bombings have stopped. But people’s economic situation couldn’t be worse.

The Afghan economic crisis has been looming for years; the result of poverty, conflict and drought. But after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the United States and its allies froze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and cut off international financing. This decision paralyzed an economy already highly dependent on aid.
Millions of Afghans are out of work. Government employees have not been paid. And the price of food has skyrocketed. Nearly half the population – 20 million people – suffer from acute hunger, according to a United Nations-backed report released this week.

The crisis is feared to kill more Afghans than 20 years of war.

“Farmers…told me that during decades of war they never had to queue for humanitarian aid – until now,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Country Director of the WFP for Afghanistan, to Christiane Amanpour of CNN in Kabul.

“I’ve met many, many women, even female heads of households, widows, who were able to fend for themselves and everything just imploded for them…The drought and the economic crisis…that’s all this collision of factors coming together.”

Women beg for bread outside a bakery in Kabul.

“There is no more work”

In Kabul and other cities, some people are experiencing hunger for the first time.

In the queue, we met Fatima, whose husband cannot find work as a security guard, Aziza who lost her job as a cleaner at the Ministry of Labor and Azima, the teacher.

Azima had never been unemployed until a Taliban decree closed secondary schools for girls. She now teaches in primary school to try to make ends meet, but her salary has yet to be paid.

“I work,” she said. “My students were high school students in grades 11 and 12. They’re on vacation right now so I’m teaching primary classes. But our salaries aren’t being paid on time.”

Khotima, a widow whose husband was killed in a suicide bombing four years ago, hopes the money she received from WFP will help feed her six children.

“I used to clean people’s houses, but there’s no more work. Any house you go to and ask for work says, ‘No. No money,'” she told CNN.

“I can no longer feed my children… We have no cooking oil for tonight and I owe six months rent… I have no man to help me and my children They should let me work so I can buy bread.”

"We want to work with our own hands so that we can eat the food we bought with our own money"  says Haji Noor Ahmad, as he waits for help from the WFP.

People here are angry at the lack of jobs that leaves them with no choice but to rely on handouts. “We want to work with our own hands so that we can eat the food we bought with our own money,” says Haji Noor Ahmad.

How to help the hunger crisis in Afghanistan

Behind him, Allah Noor, a computer science student at Kabul University, insists: “We don’t want to grow old as a beggar. We want jobs. We ask the world and our government to help people find jobs. .”

The West is under increasing pressure to ease the economic restrictions imposed on Afghanistan.

The UN envoy to Kabul, Deborah Lyons, urged the Security Council in March to reconnect with the Taliban and prevent the collapse of the Afghan economy.

“The crisis in Afghanistan is evolving into a disaster of choice as international donor policies – designed to economically isolate the Taliban – simultaneously collapse the Afghan economy and push nearly 20 million Afghans into a state of acute food insecurity” , said Vicki. Aken, Afghanistan director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.

Mothers, malnourished children

It is a precarious situation for the poorest in Kabul, who must gather a few hundred Afghans every day to feed their families.

In a maze of low, mud-walled houses on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, Basmina prepares an evening meal of eggs, a small bowl of beans and two flatbreads. She, her husband Waliullah and their six children ate the same for lunch – leftovers are their dinner.

Waliullah and his family sit down to dinner at their home on the outskirts of Kabul.

“We don’t have any other food,” she said. “Maybe once a week or every 10 days we’ll have meat too.”

Her children are always hungry, says Basmina. The two oldest, aged 8 and 10, are polishing shoes and collecting old papers to resell. They bring home the family’s only income since Waliullah injured his back, leaving him unable to work as a day labourer.

Basmina says the couple’s 10-month-old baby is malnourished. “We don’t have enough food to feed the children and there is no work. I tell them, ‘God will be kind to us one day’.”

Malnutrition is a threat to children across Afghanistan. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with starving children, even as medical supplies are in short supply.

Two-year-old Mohammad lies in a small bed in the malnutrition ward of Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul.
Angela, Shazia's seven-month-old baby, suffers from severe pneumonia and malnutrition.

At the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, the wards are filled with mothers and babies.

Two-year-old Mohammad lies in a small bed, his emaciated body showing signs of severe malnutrition. His mother, Parwana, says she only had breast milk to feed him; now she says she cannot afford to eat enough to continue producing milk.

Angela, Shazia’s seven-month-old baby, suffers from severe pneumonia and malnutrition. “They gave me rice and other foods because I have less milk to breastfeed my child,” she says.

“Back home, we don’t have that kind of food, unfortunately. If we eat lunch, we don’t eat dinner.”

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