In the face of economic collapse, Afghanistan is in the throes of famine

SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan – One by one, women poured into the mud-brick clinic, frames of hungry children pointing from the folds of their pale gray, blue and pink burqas.

Many had walked for over an hour through this drab expanse of southern Afghanistan, where parched earth meets washed-out skies, desperately seeking medicine to revive their children’s narrowed veins. For months, their daily meals had become more sparse as crops failed, wells dried up, and traders’ credit for flour ran out.

Now that the fresh air was getting colder, the reality was setting in: their children might not survive the winter.

“I am very afraid this winter will be even worse than we can imagine,” said Laltak, 40, who, like many women in rural Afghanistan, has only one name.

Almost four months after the Taliban took power, Afghanistan is on the brink of a massive famine which aid groups say threatens to kill a million children this winter – a toll that would eclipse the total number Afghan civilians estimated to have been killed as a direct result of war over the past 20 years.

While Afghanistan has suffered from malnutrition for decades, the country’s food crisis has worsened dramatically in recent months. This winter, an estimated 22.8 million people – more than half of the population – are expected to face life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to analysis by the United Nations World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Among them, 8.7 million people are on the brink of famine, the worst stage of a food crisis.

Such widespread hunger is the most devastating sign the economic crash that has paralyzed Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. Almost overnight, billions of dollars in foreign aid that supported the previous Western-backed government disappeared and US sanctions against the Taliban isolated the country from the global financial system, crippling Afghan banks and hampering work. aid from humanitarian organizations.

Across the country, millions of Afghans – from day laborers to doctors and teachers – have spent months with no steady income or no income. The prices of food and other basic items have soared beyond the reach of many families. Emaciated children and anemic mothers have flocked to hospital malnutrition wards, many of which lack the medical supplies donor aid once provided.

Compounding its economic woes, the country faces one of the worst droughts in decades, which has withered fields, starved farm animals and dried up irrigation canals. Afghanistan wheat crop expected to reach 25 percent below average this year, according to the United Nations. In rural areas – where around 70 percent of the population lives – many farmers have given up farming their land.

Now, as the freezing winter sets in, with aid agencies warning that a million children could die, the crisis is potentially overwhelming both for the new Taliban government and for the United States, which is under pressure. growing to ease worsening economic restrictions. crisis.

“We need to separate politics from the humanitarian imperative,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, World Food Program country director for Afghanistan. “The millions of women, children, men in the current crisis in Afghanistan are innocent people who are doomed to a winter of utter despair and potentially death.

In Shah Wali Kot, an arid district of Kandahar province, drought and economic crash converged into a perfect storm.

For decades, smallholder farmers survived winters on stored wheat from their summer harvest and income from selling onions in the market. But this year barely produced enough to support families during the fall months. Without food to spend the winter, some people have migrated to cities in the hope of finding work or to other neighborhoods to rely on the help of loved ones.

Inside one of the clinic’s two mud huts, which is run by the Afghan Red Crescent and supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Laltak grabbed the body skinny of her granddaughter as if she was preparing for the hardships she experienced this winter. would bring.

His family has no more wheat, no more wood for heating, no money to buy food. They have exhausted the support of close relatives who cannot even support their own families.

“Nothing, we have nothing,” Laltak said in an interview in late October.

She and most of the mothers interviewed did not own cell phones or had phone service in their villages, so the Times could not follow them on their children’s health.

According to the United Nations, 30% more Afghans faced crisis food shortages in September and October compared to the same period last year. In the coming months, the number of Afghans in crisis is expected to reach an all-time high.

“It has never been so bad,” said Sifatullah Sifat, chief medical officer at the Shamsul Haq clinic on the outskirts of Kandahar city, where cases of malnutrition have doubled in recent months. “Donors are shipping drugs, but it’s still not enough. “

At 10 a.m. each morning, a crowd of mothers carrying skeletal children gather in the hallway of the malnutrition unit.

In an examination room in October, Zarmina, 20, cradled her 18-month-old son while her 3-year-old daughter stood behind her, clutching her blue burqa. Since the Taliban seized power and her husband’s job as a day laborer dried up, her family has survived mainly on bread and tea – meals that have left their children’s stomachs hungry.

“They cry for food. I wish I could give them something, but we have nothing, ”said Zarmina, who is six months pregnant and severely anemic.

Zarmina’s son had become fragile after weeks of diarrhea. He stared at the wall as a nurse wrapped a color-coded measuring tape used to diagnose malnutrition around his very thin arm, stopping at the color red: severe malnutrition.

As the nurse told Zarmina he had to go to the hospital for treatment, another mother broke into the room and collapsed on the floor, asking for help for her little one. girl.

“It’s been almost a week, I can’t get any medicine for her,” she pleaded.

The nurse begged her to wait: her daughter’s malnutrition was considered moderate.

Since the Taliban took power, the United States and other Western donors have grappled with delicate questions of how to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan without granting legitimacy to the new regime by lifting sanctions or putting money directly into the hands of the Taliban.

“We believe that it is essential to maintain our sanctions against the Taliban, but at the same time to find ways for legitimate humanitarian aid to reach the Afghan people. This is exactly what we are doing, ”said the Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury, Wally Adeyemo, told the Senate Banking Committee in October.

But as the humanitarian situation worsened, aid organizations called on the United States to act faster.

US officials showed some flexibility to loosen Afghanistan’s economic stranglehold last week, when the board of the World Bank – which includes the United States – decided to release $ 280 million. dollars in frozen donor funding for the World Food Program and UNICEF. Yet the sum is only part of the $ 1.5 billion frozen by the World Bank under pressure from the US Treasury after the Taliban took control.

How the freed funds will be transferred to Afghanistan remains uncertain. Despite letters the US Treasury Department recently sent to foreign banks assuring them they can process humanitarian transactions to Afghanistan, many financial institutions still fear exposure to US sanctions.

The Taliban government has repeatedly called on the Biden administration to ease economic restrictions and has worked with international organizations to provide assistance. But already, millions of Afghans have been pushed to the limit.

At Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar this fall, malnourished and sick children piled up on worn out metal beds in the pediatric ward. In the intensive care unit, an ominous silence filled the great room as children too weak to cry visibly withered away, their breathing was labored, and the skin sagged over the protruding bones.

“I wanted to get her to the hospital earlier,” said Rooqia, 40, looking at her 1.5-year-old daughter, Amina. “But I didn’t have any money, I couldn’t come.”

Like many other mothers and grandmothers in the parish, they came from western Kandahar where, over the past two years, irrigation canals have dried up and, more recently, pantries have dried up. emptied. Amina began to shrivel – her skin was so drained of essential vitamins that the spots peeled off.

On a nearby bed, 2-year-old Madina let out a soft moan as her grandmother, Harzato, 50, readjusted her sweater. Harzato had taken the girl to the local pharmacist three times to ask for medicine until he told her there was nothing more he could do: only a doctor could save the child.

“We were so far from the hospital, I was worried and depressed,” Harzato said. “I thought she might not be able to do it.”

Yaqoob Akbary has contributed reporting from Kandahar, Wali Arian from Istanbul and Safiullah Padshah from Kabul.

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