The terrible scenes we have witnessed in recent weeks from Ukraine have reminded us all of the horrors of war, and its cruel impact on children.
Conflict rips away their safety, their stability and the security that every child needs to flourish.
It destroys their homes. Forces them to flee. Interrupts their education. And robs them of the childhood that is their right. When they see fear in their parents’ eyes, trauma takes seed where security and joy once thrived.
For the children of Afghanistan, the impact of decades of conflict has long been woven into their lives. Tragically, this has never been more true than over the last year, as the Taliban surged to power.
Now, months later, children, those least responsible for this crisis, are paying the highest price. The world’s support has never been more important.
Poverty is scarring the children of Afghanistan and throughout our visit we witnessed again and again the creeping face of starvation across the country
In the months following the Taliban takeover and amid an economic collapse, millions of children in Afghanistan have seen their parents lose their jobs. They have watched helplessly as prices of even the most basic foods have skyrocketed.
Many have been pulled out of education and into the work force, years before their time. And worse, many girls have been exchanged for dowry by their desperate parents - only so they can buy food to keep their other children alive.
Harrowing poverty is widespread in Afghanistan.
I saw it, first-hand, during a recent visit. I was forced to confront the terrible realities it creates for children. I listened to the heartbreaking stories in disbelief at the horror of the choices parents face. As a parent myself, it is simply impossible to imagine how hard it must be for a mother or father in Afghanistan to see their daughter, sometimes an infant daughter, be torn from their family by some form of grotesque necessity.
Poverty is scarring the children of Afghanistan and throughout our visit we witnessed again and again the creeping face of starvation across the country. At the hospitals we visited, we met numerous children suffering from complicated cases of severe acute malnutrition. That is the technical word for starving; estimates put the number of children at risk of death from starvation in Afghanistan this year as high as one million.
A child should be a happy soul. A child should be curious. A child should delight in exploring the world. Malnutrition robs children of that joy
The children and mothers we spoke to were facing dire circumstances. You could see the concern on the mothers’ faces as they anxiously listened to the doctors and nurses explain the treatment their children needed. Thankfully, for those who can reach the hospitals, there is hope. They can be helped. But for countless other children around Afghanistan, access to a hospital and life-saving medical care is, too often, out of reach.
Of course, when you see malnourished children, the first things that hit you are the physical signs. Their fragility. The thinness of their limbs. Their listlessness. And, sometimes, a slight hunch that makes you feel their heads have suddenly become too heavy to carry. It is a truly horrific experience for a child.
Not only does severe acute malnutrition cause physical trauma, enduring physical trauma also steals a child’s spirit. A child should be a happy soul. A child should be curious. A child should delight in exploring the world. Malnutrition robs children of that joy.
Afghanistan has some of the most rugged and beautiful territory I have ever witnessed. From above, a never-ending series of ridges and valleys stretch to the horizon. We travelled there in March and many mountains were still blanketed in snow. The terrain and conditions lock communities away from each other for many months of the year. They force children into arduous and dangerous journeys to find medical care, to go to school, or to reach markets for the critical supplies on which they depend.
And now that the snow is melting away, our teams are reaching new regions, bringing education and healthcare to children who have never before had access to what we all take for granted. In a strange way, now that the conflict has subsided and access to new areas has increased, there is an opportunity to help ever more children. And that is the mindset of the local humanitarian teams you meet.
Our long journeys in Afghanistan were shared with these local teams; Afghans at the forefront of the humanitarian response. I spoke with many of them and asked the question that has been on my mind for months: “Why did you stay?”
So many of them had visa offers from western countries. Yet, they stayed. The reasons are varied and personal: “I stayed for my parents,”. “I stayed for this work.” “I stayed because Afghanistan is my home.”
Of course, millions of children and their families did not have this choice. They are bound to Afghanistan and at the mercy of its shifting and volatile political tides. It is for these children that the world must fight and ensure that years of progress are not lost. The children and families of Afghanistan know they face great challenges, and that the road will be hard, yet they are determined and still, somehow, full of hope.
For the rest of the world, our next steps are instinctive. We must not abandon the children of Afghanistan. They need our help now. And because we can help, we must.
Peter Power is executive director of Unicef Ireland