Afghanistan’s new poor prepare to ask for help to survive as the food crisis takes its toll

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

It’s calmer than it was on the first day of this month’s distribution in this district, Khalid Ahmadzai, a coordinating partner of WFP at the site, told CNN. At the time, on May 11, people were climbing walls to enter. WFP claims to have helped 3,000 families in that district on day one, with an average of seven in each household.

On Sunday, some 700 people waited patiently for up to two hours for their IDs to be checked and the money to be handed over.

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

He added: “Your son was maybe three or four years old … The feeling he had about his hunger and the economic situation he had was at a point to ask to sell his son.”

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

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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 seized Kabul last year: “The suicide bombings have stopped. But the people’s economic situation couldn’t be worse.”

The economic crisis in Afghanistan has been looming for years; the result of poverty, conflict and drought. But after the Taliban took power in August 2021, the United States and its allies freeze about $ 7 billion of the country’s foreign reserves and cut international funding. The move paralyzed an already heavily aid-dependent economy.
Millions of Afghans are out of work. Government employees were not paid. And the price of food has soared. Almost half of the population – 20 million people – suffer from acute hunger, according to a Report supported by the United Nations released this week.

It is feared that the crisis could kill more Afghans than 20 years of war.

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

“I have met many, many women, even heads of households, widows, who have been able to get by on their own and it all just imploded for them … The drought and the economic crisis … it’s all that collision of factors coming together.”

Women ask for bread outside a Kabul bakery.

“There is no more work”

In Kabul and other cities, some people go hungry for the first time.

Waiting in line, we met Fatima, whose husband cannot find work as a security guard, Aziza who lost his 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. Now he teaches elementary school to try to make ends meet, but his salary has not yet been paid.

“I work,” he says. “My students were 11th and 12th grade high school students. I’m on vacation right now, so I’m teaching elementary school. But our salaries aren’t 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 her 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,’” he tells CNN.

“I can’t feed my children anymore … We don’t have cooking oil for tonight and I owe six months’ rent … I don’t have a man to help me and my children. They should make me work so I can buy bread.”

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

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

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Behind him in line is Allah Noor, a computer science student at Kabul University, who insists: “We don’t want to age like beggars. We want work. We ask the world and our government to help people find jobs.”

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

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

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

Malnourished mothers, children

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

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

Waliullah and her family sit down to dinner in their home on the outskirts of Kabul.

“We don’t have any other food,” he says. “Maybe once a week or every 10 days we will also have meat.”

Her children are always hungry, says Basmina. The two eldest, ages 8 and 10, are out shining shoes and picking up waste paper to sell. They take home the family’s only income since Waliullah injured his back, leaving him unable to work as a day laborer.

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 someday.’”

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

Two-year-old Mohammad lay in a cot in the malnutrition ward of the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul.
Seven-month-old Angela di Shazia has severe pneumonia and malnutrition.

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

Two-year-old Mohammad lay in a cot, his emaciated body showing signs of severe malnutrition. Her mother, Parwana, says she had little breast milk to breastfeed him; she now she says she can’t afford to eat enough to keep producing milk.

Shazia’s seven-month-old baby, Angela, has severe pneumonia and malnutrition. “They gave me rice and more food because I have less milk to breastfeed my baby,” she says.

“Unfortunately we don’t have this kind of food at home. If we eat lunch, we don’t eat dinner.”