As Afghanistan’s harsh winter sets in, many are forced to choose between food and heat
A few sticks of firewood, weighed on a scale and sold for half a dollar is all this boy’s family and many more can afford to heat their homes overnight during this snowy winter in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 4. , 2022. (Pamela Constable / The Washington Post)
KABUL, Afghanistan – The snow started falling early, dusting trees and fences in the Afghan capital nicely this week, but turning the neighborhood’s unpaved alleys into dangerous sludge. In many poor homes, the heat provided by the charcoal shavings and scraps of used wood in old metal stoves had gone out long before dawn.
Mahmad Ewaz, 28, a former sharecropper and father of four who fled fighting in Helmand province two years ago, listened to his one-year-old daughter cough and gazed at a single log lying in a corner. The pantry of the mud-walled family home in western Kabul contained only a few onions and potatoes, and the stove was dark. It was too cold for his boys to come out and dig, so he grabbed the log and started shaving off pieces.
“The authorities tell us we can return home safely now, but we have nothing left there,” Ewaz said Tuesday with a sigh. Life in the city, however, has become much more difficult since the Taliban regained power in August. He earns less than a dollar a day, sewing soles on shoes, and the cost of heating fuel has risen far beyond the family’s means. âAt least this diary will give us a few more hours tonight,â he said.
The country’s new rulers, cut off from most international aid as well as Afghan government assets held in US accounts, have few resources to protect millions of vulnerable people from another harsh winter. Aid organizations estimate that nearly 23 million Afghans, out of a total population of 39 million, already do not have enough to eat. Many also lack sturdy shelter and money to heat their homes at night, forcing them to choose between food and fuel, and creating additional potential for a full-blown humanitarian disaster, aid officials said.
Many Afghans lived a meager existence before the Taliban takeover. But others are part of a large, newly impoverished urban working class that flourished after the sudden collapse of the vast foreign-funded war and aid economy.
âEverywhere we go we find thousands more people who need help,â said Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. âThey were not kicked out of their homes, but they lost their jobs, they have no savings and their living systems are collapsing. They are not on our lists, but they come and wait outside the distribution sites and say, âWhat about us? “
UNHCR is one of several international humanitarian agencies that have recently launched emergency winter assistance projects, using indirect funding and limited foreign licensing agreements to avoid violating international sanctions.
The agency provides food, blankets and money for heating to 70,000 people a week in Kabul. Its main focus is families displaced from rural areas by conflict, a group that has grown from 3.5 million to over 4 million last year as Taliban fighters swept the country. With the end of the war, UNHCR officials have said, it is safer to provide aid, but many of the most needy do not meet their strict criteria.
This winter, the World Food Program also expanded its operations to provide basic food items or cash to families most in need, such as those headed by widows or unemployed breadwinners. Program officials said they helped 8 million people in December and expect to reach 12 million this month.
In addition to providing food aid directly, the program uses cash and âtokensâ through local banks, mobile networks and money transfer agencies. The vouchers, valued between $ 59 and $ 79 depending on the level of need in each region, allow people to purchase their own food or other necessities.
“Nothing is going to the government,” said Shelley Thakral, spokesperson for the program in Kabul.
As snow fell steadily from a slate-gray sky on Tuesday, more than 2,000 men and several hundred women lined up outside a warehouse in the impoverished district of Karte Naw, awaiting distributions of flour, beans, salt and cooking oil provided by the World Food Program. Cries of protest erupted periodically when people without proper documentation were turned away.
Next to a cold stove in their icy two-room house in Kabul, a son of Mahmad Ewaz, a rural war refugee, tries to comfort his little sister and keep her warm in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 3, 2022 (Pamela Constable / The Washington Post)
Afghan women wait in heavy snow for food donations from the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 4, 2022 (Pamela Constable / The Washington Post)
Abdul Hadi sits with his grandson Yasin and the wheelbarrow he pushes for rent in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 4, 2022 (Pamela Constable / The Washington Post)
As the lines rolled on, the approved candidates – war widows, slow-motion construction workers, caregivers of sick relatives at home – walked out of the warehouse with hand-signed white tickets. Then they followed porters with wheelbarrows carrying heavy sacks of flour and other supplies to waiting taxis.
Along a nearby boulevard, women covered in burqas crouched in snow banks and reached out to crawling cars. An elderly man holding an empty bag of sugar said his family had asked for food assistance but had not received a response. His plan for the day was to knock on doors, ask people if they needed to shovel their walks, and hope they would put a few potatoes or carrots in his bag as payment.
“My life is hard, but it becomes much more difficult in the winter,” said Abdul Hadi, 75, who works as a wheelbarrow carrier in hot weather. A few yards down a muddy lane, her daughter and several grandchildren were huddled around a wood-burning stove in one of the two rented rooms. Hadi’s battered metal wheelbarrow was inside the other, stacked with flattened cardboard to fuel the fire. âWe don’t even have enough money to buy bread,â he said, his face crumpled with defeat. “It’s the same story in every family. Please tell the world to help us.”
Charcoal and wood sellers, waiting in fenced yards filled with piles of firewood from the forests of eastern Afghanistan and sacks of charcoal from the mountains of the north, attracted only a trickle of customers this week despite the widespread and desperate need for warmth. A 12-year-old boy trudged through the snow to buy 20 sticks of firewood, carefully watching his order weighed and handing over 50 cents. He said it would last a night for the family.
“People can’t afford to buy now, and we can’t afford to sell,” said Shahwali Khan, 50, warming his hands over a small fire in his supply yard. fuel in a poor area of ââKabul. “Everything is connected. The government has collapsed, people have no wages and the economy has gone to zero.” In past winters, he said, “even ordinary people brought home 100 kilos. [of wood] at a time. Today I will be happy if I sell 20 kilos by dark. “
Although the cash-strapped Taliban government has virtually no means of helping the poor, it has coordinated closely with foreign aid programs, primarily providing armed escorts for supply trucks and ensuring the security of overcrowded distribution sites. All supervisors and workers at the sites are Afghans. Officials who interact with the poor, such as needy people who show up at the doors of the Refugee Ministry, also pass on their requests for help.
Mufti Abdal Motalib, spokesperson for the Ministry of Refugees, said his office worked with several foreign agencies, including the UN refugee agency, without touching any of the funds they receive. In rural areas where the distribution of aid was once limited by the fighting, he said, the new authorities are now helping to deliver it from provincial centers. “The [charities] have relationships with international banks, and we do our best to facilitate their work, âhe said. âWe want as many Afghans as possible to be helped.
Thursday morning the sun had reappeared, but the weather was very cold and more snow was expected. Outside a long-abandoned grain elevator, Taliban police stood guard as freight trucks drove up from warehouses, carrying wheat from Kazakhstan, rice from Tajikistan and cooking oil from Russia. Afghan officials from the German charity World Without Hunger supervised, while rows of wheelbarrows were loaded with food bags and plastic bags with personal supplies, including toothbrushes, disinfectant, towels and toiletries. shampoo. In two weeks, they said, they will start distributing blankets and overcoats.
At 9 a.m., the first of 221 families on today’s list started arriving. A woman named Parasto, speaking under a burqa, said her husband had previously worked repairing car batteries but was disabled. She said her two sons, 12 and 9, go to school in the morning and then earn some money selling plastic bags that people can burn in their stoves.
Mustafa, the eldest, was breathing on his chapped hands. âIt’s cold work,â he said, âand I get cold quickly.â