Category Archives: Afghanistan

The tragedy of Afghanistan’s malnourished children

Every few seconds a sick child is brought in to the emergency room of the main hospital in Lashkar Gah in a race against time to save the youngest casualties of Afghanistan’s hunger crisis.

Amidst the heart-rending sound of dozens of hungry babies crying, and desperate pleas for help from their mothers, nurses scramble to prioritise children who need urgent care. There are many such babies.

Lashkar Gah is a city in the capital of Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s most war-ravaged provinces and lies roughly 400 miles (644km) south-west of Kabul.

Jalil Ahmed is brought in hardly breathing. His hands and feet have gone cold. He’s rushed through to the resuscitation room. His mother Markah says he’s two and a half years old, but he looks a lot tinier. He’s severely malnourished and has tuberculosis. Doctors work fast to revive him.

Markah watches in tears.

“I’m helpless as he suffers. I’ve spent the whole night scared that at any minute he’ll stop breathing,’ she says.

Space has to be made in an already full intensive care unit for little Jalil. A doctor carries him there in his arms, as a nurse follows holding up the bottles of fluid and medicines that are being injected into his body through multiple tubes.

There’s no time for the staff to stop. They must quickly put another baby, five-month-old Aqalah, back on oxygen. It’s her third time in hospital. Doctors say that a few hours earlier, they thought she wouldn’t make it, but right now, she’s just about holding on.

One in every five children admitted to critical care is dying, and the situation at the hospital has been made worse in recent weeks by the spread of the highly contagious measles disease that damages the body’s immune system, a deadly blow for babies already suffering from malnutrition.

The hospital, run by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, is one of a handful of fully-functioning facilities in a province that’s home to around 1.5 million people. It’s completely overwhelmed. It has 300 beds, but is seeing around 800 patients a day, most of them children.

There’s almost nowhere else for people to turn to. Cutting off the foreign money which ran Afghanistan has dealt a double blow. It’s triggered an economic crisis that has brought an already poor population to the brink of starvation, and it’s led to the near collapse of the public healthcare system that it almost entirely funded before the Taliban takeover.

Child malnutrition has long been a problem in Afghanistan, but data collected by Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) shows a massive surge in the number of children with severe acute malnutrition admitted to hospitals, from 2,407 in August 2021, to 4,214 in December 2021.

The increase can, in part, be attributed to it being safer to travel to hospitals now that the frontlines have gone, but also misses a large number of malnourished children not taken to hospital because their families cannot afford the journey. Even if they could, they’d need to travel for hours on rubble roads, and it would be hard to find a medical facility that’s not dysfunctional.

The Musa Qala and Gereshk district hospitals are overrun with malnourished children, but neither hospital has operational critical care. There are no female doctors. The hospital buildings are run-down, cold and dark. Electricity comes and goes. Night time temperatures drop to 4C.

In Gereshk a small heater hooked to a gas cylinder kept in the centre of the rooms provides barely any warmth. Mothers and babies sit huddled under blankets. The smell of disease hangs thick in the air.

At Musa Qala, when the breathing of another baby, one-and-a-half-year-old Walid, became irregular, he had to be carried through alleys and doorways to a decaying building next door which had the only oxygen cylinder we saw at the hospital.

The father of 10-day-old Zakiullah was sent out to find a saline drip solution in the market, because the hospital had no supplies.

Dr Aziz Ahmed who has worked at Gereshk hospital for more than a decade says they have few medicines and barely any staff, and yet have hundreds of patients coming in every day. They have to turn seriously ill children away because they don’t have the facilities to help them, and Dr Ahmed says some have died before they got to a fully functioning hospital.

He and the other staff didn’t receive salaries from August till October. From November, they and some other hospitals in the region have been receiving some payments through humanitarian organisations like Unicef, WHO (World Health Organization) and local charity Baran (Bu Ali Rehabilitation and Aid Network).

“The humanitarian family is just trying to provide a survival bridge for these children while the world figures out the politics, but we cannot fully fund the health system,” says Salam Janabi of Unicef.

“Don’t mix up children in politics. The moment here in Afghanistan is critical for children, and every decision the world makes, the politicians make, will impact them.”

When you travel through Helmand province, destruction caused by war can be seen in almost every area. The scale of it in Sangin town is particularly shocking.

There are swathes of land covered with debris and mud, where once homes and shops had stood. These areas are where foreign and Afghan troops encountered some of their fiercest battles and where British soldiers were posted.

Abdul Raziq is from a community that has lived on the frontline for decades.

“We are happy there is peace now, but we have no food, no work and no money. Wheat and fuel have become too expensive’, he says.

“Hundreds of children in my village are malnourished. In every house, you will find two or three. We have nothing to feed their mothers, that’s why they’re being born like this.”

In a mud home nearby lives Hameed Gul. Two of his daughters, Farzana and Nazdana, are malnourished. Nazdana is so ill he’s sent her to her grandparents because he’s unable to feed her. His 10-year-old son Naseebullah has already begun to work on the fields to help out.

The unending suffering of his family is the legacy of foreign actions, present and past. Hameed’s home was bombed in American airstrikes five years ago. Ten of his family, including his parents, six brothers and a sister were killed.

“We had no connection with the Taliban. My house was unjustly bombed. Neither the Americans, the previous government or the new one offered to help me,” Hameed says.

“We eat just dry bread. About two to three nights a week, we go to bed hungry.”

Everywhere we went, we asked what people had eaten that day. Most described sharing a few pieces of dry bread between whole families.

Children are the most vulnerable in this crisis of hunger. Afghanistan’s youngest generation is being left to die.

In many of the areas we visited, malnutrition deaths might not even get recorded or counted. The world might never know the scale of the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan.

Albania: Afghan women start eatery to help refugees feel at home

AfghanRestaurant Inside Albanian Pizzeri
For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavour to discuss the news from back home [Ruchi Kumar/Al Jazeera]

Shengjin city, Albania – The smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen of a small pizzeria in Shengjin city – a small coastal town in Albania. The bread, however, is not part of the usual offerings on the menu of Bella Vita Pizzeria, but in fact, a version of the Afghan naan, a quintessential traditional bread from Afghanistan that embodies much of the war-torn nation’s food culture.

The naan is only one of the five new dishes that are now being prepared in the kitchen of this Albanian pizzeria that has agreed to share its space with a makeshift Afghan restaurant started by two Afghan refugee women – Hasiba Atakpal, a renowned journalist, and Negina Khalil, the first female prosecutor in the remote province of Ghor in Afghanistan.

“We have lobia (red bean curry), qabili pulaw (Afghan meat and rice delicacy), bolanis (stuffed fried bread), banjan borani (eggplant in tomato sauce),” said Khalil, who was a prominent member of Afghanistan’s legal fraternity, investigating cases of children recruited by Afghan armed groups such as Taliban, ISIL (ISIS) affiliates. “And just like in Afghanistan, every meal is served with the naan,” she added.

The familiar aromas of bread and spices invite the roughly 1,200 Afghan refugees in Shengjin to indulge in a nostalgia-evoking culinary experience, more than 5,500km (3,400 miles) away from the homes they left escaping persecution after Taliban seized the country in August last year. In all, nearly 3,000 Afghans have found refuge in Albania, most of them rescued by international aid agencies.

While it was Khalil’s work prosecuting armed groups and criminals that put her at extreme risk, Atakpal’s bold, front-line reporting as a correspondent for the TOLOnews – Afghanistan’s biggest news channel – earned her threats from Taliban fighters who disapproved of her work.

Both women were forced to leave Kabul, but continue to dedicate their energies to serving their Afghan compatriots.

Atakpal and Khalil’s restaurant, called Ghezaye Afghani (which means Afghan cuisines in Dari, one of the Afghan languages), does not have a business address – it exists within the local pizzeria that offered their space to the two enterprising women.

“We started this restaurant three months ago when we saw how much Afghans who escaped to Albania missed the food from home. Everyone here [at the refugee centre] is dealing with trauma, and we wanted to do something to bring smiles to their faces,” explained Atakpal.

The two women, who first met at the refugee processing centre in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, approached the local restaurant outside the Rafelo resort in Shengjin where they were being housed. All Afghans have been accommodated at designated refugee centres.

Thousands of Afghans were brought to Qatar after they were airlifted out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in August, and as the US-led foreign troops prepared to exit the country after 20 years of war.

“We shared our problem with them; about how the Afghan community missed the local food. We explained the idea we had about starting an Afghan kitchen, and they readily gave us permission to use their restaurant space to cook and serve, at no cost,” Atakpal said.

With a place secured, the two women, who are now good friends, sought out finding produce to prepare affordable authentic meals, and at times had to substitute them with the closest available ingredients. “It is not that hard to find ingredients.

“But our focus has been to prepare food that isn’t expensive so the people can afford them because nearly all our customers are refugees here, like us,” Khalil added.

They also hired another Afghan woman to prepare the dishes, since both women had limited cooking experience. “Back home, I was always so busy, I hardly spent time in the kitchen. But now my family find it very interesting that now I spend at least three days a week in the kitchen,” Atakpal quipped.

The restaurant has also gained a significant following among the local residents in Shengjin – home to about 8,000 people.

“It is so joyful when Albanian people come to us asking for our qabili pulaw and lobia. I feel this space helps us build a relationship with the Albanians who have been so nice to Afghans and welcomed us with open arms,” Atakpal said, adding that she hoped their little restaurant-within-a-restaurant leaves a positive legacy of Afghans who passed through Albania in their time of crisis.

They have applied for asylum in the United States and Canada, but it could take as long as a year to be accepted.

For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavours to discuss the news from back home.

“We get customers, Afghans from all walks of life, from across tribes and provinces, sharing a common loss and sorrow. It helps bring the community together,” Atakpal said. “It has been such a positive space, that sometimes when the restaurant is close, people come seeking us to ask when we will open,” she added.

Despite its popularity, the four-month-old business has not yet made much profit. In fact, there are days when they barely meet costs. But the women insist that the idea of this venture was never to make profits, rather to help Afghans in exile cope with the trauma they face. “Our best profit is that our people come and enjoy their time here and have their food.

For instance, many Afghan kids are used to eating only Afghan food, and when they visit us, the happiness on their face while devouring one of our delicacies, is everything for me,” Atakpal said.

But, there is another group of Afghan children that Atakpal hopes to serve through the restaurant – a group of 45 young girls, who are child labourers, enrolled in a small private school that Atakpal founded last year, in Kabul.

“We had to shut the school when the Taliban took over, but restarted four months ago. However, we have been forced underground and all activities are now held discreetly,” Atakpal said, speaking passionately about wanting to keep the school afloat even as the future of girls’ education remains uncertain in Afghanistan. She has managed to partly fund the school with the extra income she earns by working as a freelance journalist and editor.

Despite international pressure, higher education and public universities for Afghan women have remained closed since the Taliban takeover last year. While the Taliban recently announced that schools and universities for Afghan girls would resume in March, many educationists remain sceptical.

Meanwhile, underground schools like Atakpal’s have cropped up across the country, operating despite pressure from local Taliban fighters.

“We have students from grade five to 10, and cover all subjects in that syllabus. All teachers are currently working as volunteers, and many are my university friends. However, there are expenses for schools supplies, and also we compensate the students for their time since they are losing working hours when they attend the school,” Atakpal explained.

“Currently, the restaurant doesn’t make any profits to help support the school, and I am working another job as a journalist to pay for the costs to fund the school,” she said, adding that she hoped she can expand her business to eventually support the school in Afghanistan.

Neither Atakpal nor Khalil knows what their future hold, as they wait for asylum confirmation.

“We lost everything, and are back to how things were 20 years ago, where women don’t have rights, access to education, there is no justice system, there hardly any Afghan journalists left, and people are miserable,” Atakpal said.

Khalil’s mother was assassinated by the Taliban in 2020, while she and her brother were attacked during a visit to her mum’s grave. Atakpal’s family members are still based in Kabul.

“But even now if things change, even a little bit, we will both go back in a heartbeat. If not, we will continue to work for Afghanistan no matter which part of the world we are in. We will continue our fight and hope to bring change,” Atakpal said.

Meanwhile, both women hope that their restaurant will continue even long after they are gone, kept alive by Afghans who might choose to stay.

“If nothing else, we will request the owner to continue to keep some of the Afghan delicacies on the menu, as a token to our shared experiences,” Atakpal said.

War, drought, diplomatic rifts deepen Afghanistan’s water crisis

imageA recent flash flood in Kamp-e-Sakhi damaged Somagul’s home and destroyed her family’s most expensive belongings [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

On a bright day in April, in the aftermath of flash floods, rays of sun fall onto the cracked clay soil in Kamp-e-Sakhi in some parts and, in others, illuminate large puddles that dot the raw land.

In the northern Afghan district, on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif city, antiflood bags still lie on the wet ground although they helped little when the water spread days earlier, destroying modest homes.

Somagul, a 60-year-old former farmer who left her home in Baghlan last year because of severe drought and pressure from the Taliban, did not expect the flood.

On March 29, the sound of water hitting her door awakened her in the middle of the night.

“We escaped in the dark with my children and grandchildren. There was no light, but we managed to find our way out, we got wet and dirty. All our things stayed in the house,” Somagul told Al Jazeera. “We went higher up to the street which was not flooded and we stayed there for the whole night. In the morning when the flood was gone, we came back.”

Although the flood soon reversed, Somagul and her family, including her sister, four children and 16 grandchildren, lost most of their few valuable possessions.

Electronic devices were among their most expensive belongings that were destroyed; it will take a long time to replace them.

Since the family moved to Mazar-e Sharif, only her son-in-law has managed to find work at the local coal market and they have no land to grow crops.

This was the second time in Somagul’s life that water-related disasters came to define her family’s fate.

Afghanistan, where the worst drought in a decade has displaced an estimated 260,000 people, has been struggling with the acute consequences of climate change, water mismanagement and 40 years of war that took its toll on the country’s weak water infrastructure.

Droughts and floods have become the norm, destroying the lives of Afghans across the country.

An upstream country, Afghanistan is not naturally water stressed. Eighty percent of its resources come from surface water that flows from snowfields and glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountains.

Over the course of Spring and Summer, the mountain snows melt and fuel Afghanistan’s five river basins.

From there, the water enters the canals and spreads across the country.

Most of Afghanistan’s irrigation depends on these resources. As the Afghan proverb goes, “may Kabul be without gold rather than snow.”

But ever since the Soviet invasion, the country’s infrastructure has been falling into ruin.

First, the bombings and years of fighting destroyed much of its canals. Then the Taliban administration did little to repair the damage, let alone build new infrastructure.

Following the US invasion, the Afghan government with the support of the international community has put water management high on its agenda, investing efforts to rehabilitate the canals.

But the infrastructure is inadequate for the needs of the country’s growing population.

Most of Afghanistan’s partners have been reluctant to support large projects, such as dams, which require substantial funds.

India, though, has sponsored the Afghan-India Friendship Dam on the Hari river and is planning the construction of Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River.

Dams are crucial to store the water needed for irrigation and prevent flash floods, which have become frequent due to climate change.

In a country where agriculture contributes between 20 and 40 percent of the GDP, depending on the year, and employs about 60 percent of the workforce, the lack of investment has had disastrous consequences.

“Because of climate change, our winters have been getting hotter year by year and we’ve had much more rain in springs instead of snow in winters, which recently resulted in floods in many provinces especially in the north and west of Afghanistan,” Abdul Basir Azimi, water expert and the former deputy minister of energy and water told Al Jazeera.

“Twenty Afghan provinces experienced about a 60 percent decrease in snowfall during the last winter season in 2017, and before that.

“Severe drought throughout the country and excessively warm weather have affected the rural and urban populations, the agricultural economy and recently led to a tremendous increase in the number of IDPs.”

Drought has also affected the levels of groundwater that Afghan cities have been relying on for drinking.

Kabul is home to almost five million people and the capital’s population, according to estimates, will double in the next 10 years. The city has been particularly vulnerable to water shortages.

“Last year, we experienced severe drought in the country including in the Kabul River basin. The groundwater level dropped by more than 10 metres,” Tayib Bromand, water resources and climate change adaptation specialist at the ministry of water and energy, told Al Jazeera.

“In Afghanistan’s major cities there was not enough water for domestic supply. Particularly, the most elevated parts of Kabul do not receive sufficient water for drinking.”

Unable to access drinking water through the official distribution networks, Afghanistan’s population has been relying on unofficial wells with poor-quality water. Others have been using paid water delivery services provided by private companies.

While Afghanistan has now entered peace talks with the Taliban, internal displacement caused by the water crisis might further stir conflict.

In some areas, farmers have no choice but to join armed groups in order to feed their families.

At the local level, conflicts over water also erupt between upstream and downstream areas, as well as individual farmers.

Jenna Jadin, a scientist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera: “We’re trying to make sure that water is incorporated into everything we are doing: for example, in projects where we’re teaching people to diversify their livelihoods and diets through planting new crops, we are also making sure to teach better water usage for those crops.

“We are also implementing projects that restore forests and rangelands, which will reduce surface water losses and soil erosion.”

But Afghanistan’s water scarcity has the potential to cause conflict on a regional level, too.

Due to insufficient infrastructure and decades of conflict, 70 percent of the country’s surface water ends up flowing into neighbouring states, all of which, apart from Tajikistan, are water stressed.

“Afghanistan’s situation has created an opportunity for the neighbouring countries to unfairly and unreasonably develop their agriculture lands at a very rapid pace downstream and also illegitimately transfer the water from the bordering lands to their central provinces,” Azimi said.

“The neighbouring countries have been irrigating hundreds of hectares of agricultural lands with water flowing from Afghanistan’s rivers, but on the other side, the neighbouring countries have built too many dams and not allowed any water [to flow] into Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan, therefore, has a pressing need for new dams to manage its scarce water reserves.

But more water staying in the country means less water for its neighbours. And while there are existing international agreements dealing with water scarcity between the five Central Asian states, for example, Afghanistan has not been part of them.

The only water agreement Afghanistan has signed was a 1973 treaty with Iran regulating the inflow of water to the country. But even that has not prevented conflict between the neighbours.

The Afghan government has long accused Iran of supporting the Taliban in order to disrupt the construction of a dam on the Helmand River, which could potentially affect the delivery of water to the country.

Similarly, Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the region, opposes the construction of the Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River sponsored by its archenemy India.

The construction of the dam could reduce the flow of water into Pakistan.

The potential of regional conflict is high and investing in water management is crucial for Afghanistan’s security.

While most of the country’s international partners are reluctant to make such costly, long-term investments that bring little profit, the government is increasingly seeing water as a security issue.

If “hydro-diplomacy” continues to be put high on the state’s agenda, not everything is lost.

“Afghanistan has had to deal with many decades of war, and, as we’ve seen the world over, environmental issues sometimes exacerbate political tensions,” Jadin said. “If we can help the people restore their environment it may very well have a positive cascading effect on other aspects of life.”