Afghanistan: Fighting off hunger under the Taliban

·5 min read
Children in Kabul
Most Afghans are now trying to feed themselves and their children after the economy collapsed

Kabul is a city still waiting for its new life to take shape - a lot depends on the will and whims of its new Taliban masters. But it is hunger that could become the worst of Afghanistan's many crises.

For the poor of the city, the majority, scraping together a few hundred Afghanis, a couple of dollars, to stave off starvation is the biggest challenge.

Millions live in desperate poverty in a country that has received huge sums in foreign aid. The money left over that might help them, around $9bn in central bank reserves, is frozen by the Americans to keep it away from the Taliban.

At dawn, hundreds of construction workers gather in one of Kabul's open-air markets with their tools looking for a day's work.

Labourers in Kabul
Every day brings labourers looking for work - but there is little to go round

Big building projects in the city have stopped. The banks are closed. The foreign money tap has been turned off. What is left amounts to a few drips.

A handful of the construction workers get picked up for work. The rest are getting angry. One of the men, Hayat Khan, raged about the fortunes stolen by a corrupt elite in the last 20 years.

"Wealthy people think about themselves, not the poor. I can't even buy bread. Believe me I cannot find a single dollar and the rest of the rich people put the aid dollars from the West in their pockets.

"No-one cares for the poor people. When aid comes from outside, the people in power made sure it went to their relatives, not to the poor."

Hayat Khan
Hayat Khan says rich people stole aid money the West sent to Afghanistan

Mohammed Anwar, lucky enough to have an office job, stopped to listen to my interviews with the building workers, and then chipped in, speaking English, accusing the Americans of theft.

"In the name of Allah, we call on America to give us the money they have taken from the Afghan government. It must be used to rebuild Afghanistan."

At that point a Taliban official, a forceful man with a bushy black beard intervened. He told us to leave the area, saying it was dangerous.

I had not detected any sense of threat, but it was not the time and place to argue. He was shadowed by a Taliban bodyguard wearing wraparound sunglasses, in the US military style, and carrying a US-made assault rifle.

The movement's fighters are very visible in the centre of the capital of the republic they have renamed as an Islamic emirate. At the airport they are dressed in American uniforms.

Across the city they are more likely to wear much more familiar traditional dress like the shalwar kameez and dusty black turbans. All of them carry assault rifles.

Taliban guard in Kabul
Taliban guards patrol the streets of Kabul

The most common lament I heard in Kabul in the last week was about the price of food and the desperation of parents who are struggling to feed their children. Food prices are rocketing. Millions struggle to feed their families.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates 93% of Afghans are not getting enough food to eat. Before the Taliban seized control last month the number was 80%.

Markets have sprung up across the city, as people who had managed to accumulate a few trappings of prosperity in the old Afghanistan sell their possessions to raise a little cash, mostly for food.

I saw carts arriving carrying the contents of peoples' homes, from valuable carpets or TVs to jumbles of crockery and cutlery. One man was selling a rubber plant. Many were selling and few were buying. There isn't the cash. The sprawling second-hand markets are full of despair.

Threats to personal freedom, girls' education and the right of women to work have been condemned across the world. But the prospect of going to bed hungry has an urgency all of its own.

Countries that want to help Afghans but reject the Taliban and all it stands for face a big dilemma. For people to be able to work to earn money, to live and to eat, the Taliban has to run a viable state in Afghanistan.

But many in the US, Britain and the other countries that fought the Taliban would find it hard to stomach anything that looked like a success for their old enemies.

The alternative might be worse; the prospect of more misery for the people, more refugees, more malnourished children, the risk that Afghanistan will once again become a failed state and a land of opportunity for jihadist extremists.

A community high above the city carries the scars of 40 years of war. So do the families who live here. War punctuates all their stories.

One of the families has had enough. Their flat was almost empty, the possessions sold at the second-hand markets to raise money for them all to leave for Pakistan.

The mother, who I'm not going to name, was the only breadwinner, teaching students electrical engineering. They are all male, so the Taliban stopped her working, and also stopped her youngest daughter's education.

She was composed and determined, but her voice thickened with sobs when I asked her how hard it was to leave her home.

Kabul child with corn
Going to bed hungry is the new reality in a country that has seen decades of war

"I am so sad. My heart has been burning since the day I made the decision to leave. How could I have done it - but what could I do?

"If we stay, I don't think they will let us work or allow us education. How can I feed my family? I can tolerate going hungry. But I can't watch my kids starve."

Their dreams were always fragile in a state riddled with corruption, which could not survive the departure of its foreign backers.

Afghanistan's newest crisis is about fundamentals of life - food, security and hope - and the despair and anger when they have gone.

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