‘No one has food’: In bleak Afghan winter, a fight for survival

KABUL (Agencies): With snow falling across the frozen landscape, scores of desperate Afghans wait in line for World Food Program rations in Logar province, south of Kabul. “We really need this food. If we don’t receive it, my children will go hungry,” says Latifa, a mother of eight, speaking through her faded-blue burqa.
Latifa signs for her family’s quota of flour and oil with a purple-ink thumbprint. A single loose thread hangs from the blue mesh that covers her face amid a scene of deprivation being repeated in every province across Afghanistan. Afghans have known the bite of hunger before, but say this winter is bleak like no other: The Taliban now rule; a hard winter has followed a severe drought; and jobs and cash have disappeared as the economy collapses and food prices soar. “Last year was nothing like this,” says Latifa. “Many people I know are in a critical situation this year. No one has food.”
The monthly ration is not enough, she adds, yet declares: “But we will survive.” Recognizing the scale of this winter’s crisis, the United Nations this month launched its biggest-ever appeal for any single country, seeking $4.4 billion for Afghanistan to “scale up and stave off widespread hunger, disease, malnutrition, and ultimately death.” The UN estimates that 22.8 million Afghans – more than half the population – will be “acutely food insecure” in 2022, with 8.7 million of those deemed “at risk of famine-like conditions.”
While poverty and hunger have been fixtures in Afghanistan during 40 years of war, the perfect storm of crises now has made Afghans increasingly reliant on social and family networks as safety nets, to prevent worst-case scenarios like starvation. Latifa says a case in point is her family, which receives crucial help from friends and neighbors. Sakina, the next woman in line at the WFP distribution in Pul-e-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar, says her family, too, receives such assistance.
Sakina was shot in the hand and the back last year at a police checkpoint, in a case of mistaken identity, she says. She lost a thumb and finger in the incident; her husband died in crossfire, long ago. “We only have old, dried-up bread from neighbors,” says the mother of nine, whose worn brown shawl is draped to expose just one eye to the elements. For many Afghans, the acute crises have forced them to stand in food lines, even as many markets in the capital, at least, appear to be stocked with fresh produce.
“Last year I had a job, I didn’t need any help,” says Mohammad Qassim, a jobless worker with eight children. “This is the first time in my life I stand in line.” “The situation in one year has completely changed,” says Hamidullah Behesh, an Afghan contracting partner with WFP who works in Logar and Paktia provinces. The UN is so far targeting 2,250 families in Pul-e-Alam, but the need is three times greater, he says. “This year, war and drought affected everyone,” says Mr. Behesh. Many jobs are gone, and individuals connected to the former government no longer receive salaries. “There is a very needy situation, especially in Logar, because people here depended on government jobs and on agriculture,” he says. To increase liquidity, the WFP is starting a six-month program providing roughly $70 per month to each family. For many, survival is a brutally simple calculation of changed circumstances. “Maybe in the markets you will find food. But the problem is the prices,” says Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. Prices have doubled since August.
“A normal family, which doesn’t have any income anymore, can’t afford to buy food,” she says. “You have families of eight or more, so how can one person feed all these people without being paid? It’s impossible.” Indeed, evidence of Afghans’ increasing vulnerability is everywhere. Along the road from Kabul to Pul-e-Alam, for example, women wearing burqas stand in the falling snow to beg, their children at their feet on the frozen ground, or huddled close. In Kabul, more children are begging on the street, clinging onto cars with their hands out, or washing windshields of vehicles stuck in traffic for the equivalent of a few cents.
Difficult cases can be found in therapeutic feeding wards of Kabul’s hospitals, like the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health. Here, 5-year-old Setayesh sits listlessly on her bed, her face gaunt with hunger. It is the third time in a year she has been admitted. “We don’t have enough food for her,” says Setayesh’s mother, Shazia. “If we had money, we would get food for her.” Doctors at two hospitals say the current surge of severely malnourished patients so far has been limited. Indeed, visitors to Indira Gandhi last September – a few weeks after the Taliban seized control – found two or three severely malnourished children in each bed.
Today there are two dozen such cases, with one child to a bed. Still, the growing scale of need is clear at one recent WFP food distribution site in the Jaie Rais area of western Kabul. As at the WFP site in Logar, a large banner makes clear that the food is “from the American people,” via the US Agency for International Development. Afghan relief workers went door to door, searching for the most vulnerable.
“There were more than 20,000 people, and all of them need it – but we selected 1,200,” says Mustafa Haidari, project manager for the Afghan Social Organization for Women (ASOW), which distributes food on behalf of the WFP. “Expectations of people [for help] are very high, now there is no work, everyone is jobless,” says Mr. Haidari. “One year ago there was need, but not like now.” Wheelbarrows are stacked with a 110-pound bag of flour, a carefully weighed sack of lentils, a jug of oil and large pack of salt – enough for a family for a month. Scores of men and some women line up around the corner on the cold, clear morning.
“The world needs to pay more attention to Afghanistan; the situation is not acceptable,” says Marzia Mohammadi, director of ASOW. Swirling among those in the WFP line is a rumor started last fall that eight children from one family perished from starvation, in a poor district on the western fringe of Kabul. That “news,” first posted on Facebook with details and even a phone number, shocked Mohammad Rasoul Nowruzi, a district leader from that impoverished neighborhood, called “Twelfth Imam.” He helped mobilize 120 local leaders to search for the lost family, but found no evidence it ever existed. But would the loss of an entire family from hunger be possible? Not without even greater deprivation, says Mr. Nowruzi, due to Afghans’ well-practiced, informal support networks. “We have a lot of families in a critical situation, with no food to eat and no wood to keep warm,” says Mr. Nowruzi. “Someone will give food or share their food.” Sometimes, he says, local leaders have asked couples planning a wedding to forego a costly ceremony, and instead donate the cash to the poor.
Such help has been part of the coping strategy for Barat Ali, his wife, Hamida, and their three daughters. Health issues and winter are preventing Mr. Ali from polishing shoes in town, which once earned him the equivalent of 70 cents a day, though often just half that. Living in a wattle and daub house in Twelfth Imam, Mr. Ali laughs when asked how he feeds the family. “With God’s blessing,” he replies. “Every door closed by people, God will open.”
That includes local help, for a family that has yet to receive any foreign food aid. They are guests at other houses for meals, the family says, and try to get invited to weddings. Hamida’s hands are black from making homemade lumps of fuel for heat. The crushed charcoal to make it “came from one neighbor,” and the necessary straw and manure “came from another,” she says. “This year is the worst,” says Ms. Hamida. “I am very worried about the future.”
So are many residents of Twelfth Imam, who mistake a foreign journalist and district leader visiting people’s homes for UN or NGO officials listing the hungriest families. Within an hour, a dozen residents tag along the icy alleys, urgently wanting to tell their stories of need. Mr. Nowruzi is their one link to outside aid. “The only person is me,” he says. “All day and night, people knock on my door, asking for help.