North Africa, West Asia: Feature

While displaced Afghans starve, international help is nowhere to be found

Withdrawal of funding, logistical problems and fear of the Taliban mean that thousands of Afghans are enduring a harsh and deadly winter

Tom Mutch
31 January 2022, 10.31am
Faozia, a 27-year-old Afghan woman begs outside the Ministry of Information while watching over her two young children
Elhan Alfazi. All rights reserved

Maryam is hooked up to an IV drip hanging from a stick that has been shoved into the ground. She is sitting cross-legged on a dirty rug in her threadbare red tent in the middle of a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Khair Khana on the outskirts of northwest Kabul, Afghanistan.

The gaunt-faced young woman is in her early twenties and her downcast eyes and thin, pale visage betray the early signs of malnutrition. She barely has the strength to cradle her infant son in her arms. “You are punishing people like her and us for the actions of the Taliban,” Mohammad, the representative of the camp, told openDemocracy.

Maryam and Mohammad are two among thousands of Afghanistan’s IDPs, who fled the years of fighting between US/NATO-supported Afghan National Army troops and the Taliban forces. Now many of them languish in camps in Kabul and other major cities, while others have turned to begging on the streets.

The camps are full of stories of suffering and pain. Abdul, a 19-year-old originally from Kunduz, told how three generations of his family lived in one house in a rural area of the province until it was destroyed in an air strike during a battle as the Taliban advanced. “After we hid from the fighting, we were forced to walk for half a day to the nearest large settlement, then a truck driver agreed to take us to Kabul on the back of his truck,” Abdul said. His grandfather pulled up his clothing to show several large shrapnel wounds in his torso and thigh.

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Fatima and her family had fled a town close to Bazarak, the capital of Panjshir, during the Taliban’s September campaign against the last hold-out province in the country. “We think the fighting that month was the fiercest the Panjshir valley had seen in all the years of conflict since the Russians came,” she said. According to Fatima, no-one at the camp had eaten anything except bread in the four months since they had arrived. They have no reliable water supply and several residents have come down with serious infections due to drinking contaminated water.

A humanitarian disaster

Afghanistan is entering the coldest months of winter. The United Nations has already warned that over 90% of the population are likely to fall into poverty, and at least half the country will suffer extreme hunger. If their projections are to be believed, more people could die from starvation over the coming months than were killed in all twenty years of the US-led war.

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Sameera, an Afghan woman who fled the conflict for the safety of Kabul, cradles her young child
Elhan Alfazi. All rights reserved

The Taliban’s chief spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told CNN: “No-one will starve, because there is no famine and the cities are full of food," blaming Afghanistan’s economic problems on international sanctions. From the ground, the situation looks starkly different to what he describes.

For most of Afghanistan’s displaced people, begging is one of the only ways to stay alive. Sameera, a 23-year-old mother of three from Mazar-I-Sharif said that before the death of her husband in recent fighting, “our life was happy, and we lived well” but now she begs on the streets of Kabul. She makes about 3,000 Afghanis a month (about $30), enough to pay for a space for her and her family in a small room near the camps. At the end of each day, she said “I make a visit to a bakery who give us burned or days-old bread to feed my family.”

“Why don’t the Americans understand that the economic blockade is not going to hurt the Taliban at all. They will still live well, it is only the ordinary people in Afghanistan who will starve”

Over the last twenty years, Afghanistan’s economy was highly reliant on international subsidies and cash injections to operate its public sector. This funding accounted for around three-quarters of government spending. When the Taliban took over, not only did these funds and the international organisations providing them vanish almost entirely, but sanctions against Afghanistan’s new rulers meant that getting much-needed foreign aid into the country has become very difficult.

The nearly $9bn the country had in foreign currency reserves is frozen in overseas bank accounts and has not been released to the new government.

Despite the Taliban victory which ended major armed conflict, the International Rescue Committee named Afghanistan the worst potential humanitarian crisis facing the world in 2022.

A young Afghan boy at an IDP camp in central Kabul
Tom Mutch. All rights reserved

Afghans, even those who do not support the Taliban, are mostly contemptuous of the decision to cut off the country’s access to international financial systems. “Americans and foreigners abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban. Now they are happy to watch us go hungry and starve from afar,” said Ikram, a former translator. “Why would people ever stay for twenty years, and then just leave us like this? The international community has completely forgotten Afghanistan.”

“Why don’t the Americans understand that the economic blockade is not going to hurt the Taliban at all. They will still live well, it is only the ordinary people in Afghanistan who will starve,” another camp resident said. “Everyone here is just a normal family, and we want to look after our children just like you do. This isn’t fair, this isn’t right.”

No support

Most camp residents said they had received little to no support from NGOs, the previous government or the new Taliban rulers. Maryam, a resident originally from Baghlan province, said that in the four months she had spent in the camp “we have not been visited by the United Nations or any other international organisation. We do not know where they are, and we just want help to survive winter.”

In fact, the only significant charitable assistance they had received was a private donation of food supplies from Alokozay – a Dubai-based drinks company whose products are popular in Afghanistan. “We have had one journalist visit, and someone from the UN came here to take the details of the refugees, but no international organisation has come to deliver help,” Maryam said.

A family from Kunduz province in an IDP camp in Kabul
Tom Mutch. All rights reserved

The Taliban remain defiant and insist they have the situation under control. In an interview with openDemocracy, Abdul Matin Rahimzai, the Taliban’s Director of Refugee Affairs in Kabul said: “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is providing facilities for displaced people, and we will provide transport to take them back to their home provinces if they wish to go. We will be working with the United Nations helping to rebuild their houses, to give them money for food and give them winter supplies.”

“We are not asking for much, just bread, shelter, and blankets to protect us from the cold”

One senior official of an NGO that has had a presence in Afghanistan since 2001 pointed out that there were major logistical and financial problems with operating in Afghanistan. “The large majority of our staff were evacuated in August and getting people back into the country has been a big problem,” the official said.

The official pointed out that many staff are still concerned about Taliban rule and the security situation, and that NGO funding has decreased dramatically given the difficulties involved with accessing money in Afghanistan. For those who do wish to return, getting into Afghanistan has been made difficult by flight disruptions and border closures, although this aspect of the situation is improving. “The Taliban have indicated they are willing to let us operate without major constraints, but the situation is highly precarious,” the official said.

“We are not asking for much,” Abdul told openDemocracy, “just bread, shelter, and blankets to protect us from the cold.” As the camp dwellers went about their day, a series of eight gunshots rang out from the streets close to the camp. No one looked surprised or startled. Ahmad just shrugged his shoulders. “This is Afghanistan. What can you say?”

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