Two long lines – one of men, another of women – wind around a World Food Programme (WFP) aid distribution site in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the heat of the mid-morning sun.
Many of the people waiting for support in Khwaja Rawash, a middle-class neighborhood near the Kabul International Airport airport, are Afghanistan’s new poor. They used to have decent jobs; now they lean on international aid to survive. The 3,800 Afghanis (just over $40) they receive from the WFP will help them make it through the month.
It’s calmer than it was on the first day of handouts this month in this district, Khalid Ahmadzai, a WFP coordinating partner at the site, tells CNN. Back then, on May 11, people clambered over the walls to get in. The WFP says it helped 3,000 households in that district on the first day, with each household having an average of seven people in it.
Last Sunday, around 700 people waited patiently for up to two hours before their IDs were checked and the money was handed over.
Ahmadzai says people are desperate. “A few days ago, one woman came to me and told me: ‘I want to give you my son for 16,000 Afghanis,”’ he says, a sum amounting to about $175. “She was crying. It was the worst feeling I have had in my life.”
He added: “Her son was maybe three or four years old… The feeling that she had about his hunger and the economical situation they had, she was at a stage to ask to sell her son.”
Armed fighters from the Taliban, who once attacked Afghanistan’s capital, now provide security at the food distribution center.
Their presence highlights a cruel irony articulated by Azima, a teacher in the queue, who is receiving aid for the first time in her life. She says the security situation has got better since the Taliban seized Kabul last year: “Suicide bombings have stopped. But people’s economic situation couldn’t be worse.”
Afghanistan’s economic crisis has loomed for years; the result of poverty, conflict and drought. But after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the US and its allies froze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign reserves and cut off international funding. The move crippled an economy already heavily dependent on aid.
Millions of Afghans are out of work. Government employees haven’t been paid. And the price of food has soared. Almost half the population – 20 million people – are experiencing acute hunger, according to a United Nations-backed report released this week.
There are fears the crisis could kill more Afghans than 20 years of war.
“Farmers … have told me that, through decades of war, they have never had to stand in line for humanitarian assistance – until now,” Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP country director for Afghanistan, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Kabul.
“I met many, many women, even female heads of households, widows, who were able to fend for themselves and it’s all just imploded for them… The drought and the economic crisis… it’s that whole collision of factors coming together.”
‘There’s no work anymore’
In Kabul and other cities, some people are experiencing hunger for the first time.
Waiting in line, we met Fatima, whose husband can’t find work as a security officer, Aziza who lost her job as a cleaner at the Labor Ministry, and Azima, the teacher.
Azima had never been out of work until a Taliban decree shuttered girls’ secondary schools. She now teaches primary school classes to try and make ends meet – but her salary hasn’t yet been paid.
“I do work,” she says. “My students were high school students in the 11th and 12th grade. They are on vacation at the moment so I’m teaching primary school classes. But our salaries are not paid on time.”
Khotima, a widow whose husband was killed in a suicide bombing four years ago, hopes the money she received from the WFP will help her feed her six children.
“I used to clean people’s houses but there’s no work anymore. Any house you go to and ask for work says: ‘No. No money,’” she 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 let me work so I can buy bread.”
People here are angry about the lack of jobs which leave them with little choice but to rely on handouts. “We want to work with our own hands so we can eat food we have bought with our own money,” says Haji Noor Ahmad.
Behind him in line is Allah Noor, a computer science student at Kabul University, who insists: “We don’t want to grow old as a beggar. We want jobs. We ask the world and our government to help people into work.”
The West is under mounting pressure to ease economic restrictions on Afghanistan.
The UN envoy to Kabul, Deborah Lyons, urged the Security Council in March to reengage with the Taliban and prevent the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy.
“The crisis in Afghanistan is evolving into a catastrophe of choice as the policies of international donors – designed to economically isolate the Taliban – are simultaneously collapsing the Afghan economy and pushing nearly 20 million Afghans into a state of acute food insecurity,” Vicki Aken, Afghanistan director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.
Malnourished mothers, children
It’s a precarious situation for Kabul’s poorest, who must scrape together a few hundred Afghanis each day to feed their families.
In a warren 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 – the leftovers are their dinner.
“We don’t have any other food,” she says. “Maybe once a week or every 10 days we will have meat as well.”
Her children are always hungry, Basmina says. The oldest two, aged 8 and 10, are out polishing shoes and scavenging waste paper to sell. They bring 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 one day.’”
Malnourishment is a threat to children across Afghanistan. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with starving children, even as medical supplies run short.
At the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, the wards are crammed with mothers and babies.
Two-year-old Mohammad lies in a small bed, his emaciated body showing the signs of severe malnutrition. His mother, Parwana, says she’s had little but breast milk to feed him; 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 other food because I have less milk to breastfeed my child,” she says.
“Back home we don’t have this kind of food, unfortunately. If we eat at lunch, we don’t eat at dinner.”