Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR


Afghans wait for food aid from the World Food Program in Kabul in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Afghans wait for food aid from the World Food Program in Kabul in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR

KABUL — Every two weeks, Mari Jaan, 50, joins hundreds of other Afghans in a long line for food, where she waits for a few modest items: a jug of cooking oil, sacks of flour, lentils, salt.

Even after retrieving this loot, her pack is light – and her burdens at home growing heavier.

“Electricity, water, everything was cut off,” explains Mari Jaan. Her husband has been unemployed and ill for much of the past year. “It was impossible to pay the bills without him.”

But what really worries him is the approaching winter.

“We are not prepared. We don’t have coal, we don’t have wood and we certainly don’t have enough to eat,” she says, as she waits for a few hours outside the gates of food distribution. center run by the World Food Programme.

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Women wait outside the distribution center where the World Food Program delivers food aid in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Women wait outside the distribution center where the World Food Program delivers food aid in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR

When the Afghan government collapsed last year and the Taliban returned to power, it triggered a major humanitarian crisis. Donor governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund cut off their aid, sending the country’s economy into a tailspin and leaving countless Afghans without jobs or income.

More than 90 percent of Afghans today don’t have enough to eat, according to the WFP and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction — and the hardship families endured last year seem insurmountable this year.

“When we talk to people at our distribution sites, everyone tells us: ‘Last winter was difficult, but we have no idea how we will get through the coming winter'”, explains Philippe Kropf , WFP spokesperson based in Kabul.

In Afghanistan, winter is when hunger hits the hardest

This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that cases of child malnutrition seen in its hospitals in Afghanistan are 90% higher this year than they were in 2021. The aid group also reported that a children’s hospital he supports in Kabul has seen a 55% increase in the number of children under 5 being treated for pneumonia as people struggle to keep their homes warm.

Some jobs, such as construction, come to a temporary halt during the colder months, leaving Afghan day laborers without a stable income during this time.

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Construction worker Shahzaman Mohammadi, 32, queues to receive food aid.

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Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Construction worker Shahzaman Mohammadi, 32, queues to receive food aid.

Claire Harbage/NPR

“Construction sites usually freeze in winter and so many of us in construction don’t have jobs and don’t earn money during the winter months,” says Shahzaman Mohammadi, 32, who is expecting at the end of the food line.

The country’s harvest this year, particularly of wheat, has been much lower than expected, partly due to a drought that has lasted for years, but also due to rising fuel and fertilizer prices. All of this means that many families in the countryside may struggle to make it through the winter thanks to subsistence farming. Getting aid to these communities and more distant villages may not be possible, depending on weather and road conditions.

Tottering households, barely able to support themselves, may have to make the same difficult choice this year that they were forced to make last winter: spend what little money they have on food or charcoal and firewood for warmth.

Humanitarian organizations are also in a more difficult situation this year, says Kropf.

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Wheelbarrows are loaded with oil, salt, flour and lentils at a WFP distribution center in Kabul.

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Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Wheelbarrows are loaded with oil, salt, flour and lentils at a WFP distribution center in Kabul.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The WFP says it needs more than $1 billion in additional funding to maintain its operations in Afghanistan through the winter. The war in Ukraine has caused a massive spike in food and energy prices this year, he reports. The aid group’s food basket is about 20% more expensive than it was last year.

The new face of hunger

In Kabul, it is not uncommon to find former teachers, members of the army and even government employees waiting for money or food aid.

“We are seeing a change in the face of hunger in Afghanistan,” says Kropf. “With jobs gone, with the economy in crisis, we are now seeing people queuing for food aid who never thought in their lives that they would be queuing for aid. .”

Khudai Nazar, 41, is one of them.

For years, he repaired flat tires to earn a living and was able to support his family of nine. But that financial security ended shortly after the fall of the government and he lost his job.

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Khudai Nazar, 41, repaired punctures for a living and was able to support his family of nine. But that financial security ended shortly after the fall of the government and he lost his job.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Khudai Nazar, 41, repaired punctures for a living and was able to support his family of nine. But that financial security ended shortly after the fall of the government and he lost his job.

Claire Harbage/NPR

“We had to cut back a lot to get by,” says Nazar, as he makes his way through a queue of food. “We used to eat meat several times a week; now we’re lucky if we can eat it a few times a month.”

He does not blame the new government for having turned his life upside down. Few queue at the WFP distribution center. Instead, many see the international community at fault.

“Life was much better before the arrival of the Islamic emirate,” Nazar says, referring to the Taliban government. “The sanctions imposed on this government have affected us all.”

While some Taliban leaders now in government have long faced international sanctions, the country and its institutions are not. The economic factors that have upended the lives of so many Afghans have more to do with the international recognition of the Taliban.

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Lines of people snake through the courtyard of a food distribution center in Kabul in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR

Afghans brace for brutal winter: NPR

Lines of people snake through the courtyard of a food distribution center in Kabul in October.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The United States engaged the Taliban in peace talks under the Trump administration, but neither Washington nor any other country recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The United States and others revoked the powers of Afghanistan’s central bank, blocking the country’s access to the international banking system and the $9 billion it held in foreign exchange reserves.

The Biden administration released $3.5 billion of the total for critical humanitarian needs through the creation of a foundation to circumvent the Taliban. But governments and financial institutions are still wary of taking over their own programs.

After declining repeated interview requests from NPR, the IMF Spokesperson’s Office sent this statement: “As there continues to be a lack of clarity within the international community regarding the recognition of a government in Afghanistan, the IMF has suspended its engagement with Afghanistan.”

It is against this backdrop that millions of Afghans and aid groups are preparing for a harsh winter.

“We are worried, we know it will be difficult,” says Mohammadi, the construction worker. “It’s all in God’s hands now.”


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