At a hospital in the remote province of Badakhshan in north-eastern Afghanistan, two-year-old Mohammad Yusuf relies on nutritional supplements to restore his wasted frame. But there is not enough to help his five siblings and their mother, Bibi Hafiza.
With no income, savings or welfare safety net since her husband disappeared after leaving home to seek work abroad in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August, the family has joined millions of others facing starvation as the country slides into what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
“Before the collapse [of the former government], I had a good life. We had guests, we could afford fruit and we were happy,” Hafiza said. “Now I have nothing.”
Afghanistan’s hunger crisis has been brewing for years. Decades of bloody fighting disrupted harvests and displaced rural communities, while successive droughts amid climate change jeopardised food supplies.
But the near-complete unravelling of the economy has been sudden and dramatic as the US and its allies enforced sanctions after the Taliban swept through the country and seized control. The country’s foreign reserves were frozen and the international funding that made up four-fifths of the previous government’s budget was abruptly cut off.
Nato members now face re-engaging with Afghanistan or watching civilians starve in a famine that the International Crisis Group warns could kill more people than the two decades of fighting that has raged since a US-led coalition first ousted the militants in 2001. Unicef said a million children could die.
"If you turn off that tap, no country could withstand that kind of economic shock, whatever the motivations," said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan director at the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which estimates 98 per cent of the country's 40 million people do not have enough to eat. "What's scary is how quickly it has deteriorated."
While some humanitarian aid has restarted, the economy and financial system remain frozen. Many donors are unwilling to support health or education services because this would require funding Taliban-controlled ministries.
Western governments justify the measures as a response to Taliban repression. Since the group took power, they have allegedly set about executing rivals and have prevented most older girls from attending school.
But critics believe this approach will hurt the Afghan people more than the Taliban. “It’s mind-boggling to say that we’ll sacrifice 15 million women in order to defend women’s rights,” said one foreign official.
Rural provinces such as Badakhshan are particularly vulnerable, aid groups say. Its one million population is scattered amid the Hindu Kush mountains, with limited farmland and many communities effectively cut off each year by winter snow. Even before the collapse, 40 per cent of children there were malnourished, according to the WFP.
Sayed Shafiq Ahmad, a local WFP official, said the organisation was providing food aid to 16,000 families in the provincial capital Faizabad, up from 1,000 before the Taliban takeover. This probably represented only half of those in need, he added.
Much of the population depended on the former government or security forces for work and is now unemployed or unpaid.
The crisis is fuelling desperation and rage. One afternoon in Faizabad last week, heavily armed Talibs used thick leather belts to beat back hundreds of people trying to secure bags of flour and pulses from a distribution warehouse. Two men in the queue started fighting, falling over as they traded blows.
At the provincial hospital, mothers and their toddlers crammed the paediatric ward in search of aid. Turned away empty-handed, some women attempted to barge into a doctor’s office demanding help, while nurses forced the door shut. “There’s no hope,” said Alimah Sadat, a midwife.In one cot lay Usman, an emaciated nine-month-old who had been in hospital for 16 days after being brought in by his mother Atifah Azizi suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration.
Azizi’s husband, an electrician on building sites, usually earned enough during the warm months to pay for vegetables, fruit and meat before construction work stopped for the winter, she said. After four months without work the family now struggles to afford a bag of rice.
Mohammad Akbar, head of the unit, said the hospital had admitted 50 per cent more malnourished children so far this year compared with last, a number unprecedented in his 35-year career spanning Soviet occupation, civil war and the latest conflict.
What happened now “depends on the international community”, he said. “If they want to bring changes, they can. But our community cannot.”
The Taliban blame the crisis on the west’s vindictiveness yet also appear in denial, with senior leader Anas Haqqani telling the BBC that fears of mass starvation were “propaganda”.
For women such as Sabrinisa, the threat is real. The 50-year-old moved to Faizabad with her husband and four children last year to escape the violence and grinding poverty in their rural home.
But things are hardly better in the town. The family lives between a one-room mud and stone house and makeshift tarpaulin tents and all of the children are out of school. Sabrinisa’s husband, who works in the market as a porter, might make 50 afghanis (€0.40) on a good day.
“If he earns money, then he can bring us some bread for the night,” she said. “If not, we’ll be going to sleep hungry.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021