Streets of Kabul full of desperately poor people

The family of Abdul, who used to work as a policeman for the previous government, lives in a bunker-like house the windows of which are covered in plast. Standing to the right is his 11-year-old daughter. PHOTO: Erik Prozes

People’s lives are collapsing in Afghanistan, with everyone dreaming of escaping to the West.

Abdul (39) and his family live in a bunker that is not difficult to describe. The abode has nothing except a blanket and pillows and a few dishes. The windows do not even have glass in them.

The concrete walls of the 25-30-square-meter room are bare. Half of the concrete floor is covered in two thin fabric carpets that offer no real protection from the oozing cold. Two large windows are covered by pieces of plastic wrap with holes in them. The room is lit during the day as there is no power. Even one corner of the roof is patched using a black blanket.

A large mattress in one corner supports Abdul’s three children (aged 17, 11 and six) and his wife huddling under a blanket. They keep a plastic jar filled with hot water under the blanket and press their feet to it. It is the only source of heat in the room. The outside temperature is seven degrees in the afternoon but drops below freezing at night. “It drops below zero also in here at night. The sun does not provide heat here even during the day as its rays are blocked by the surrounding buildings,” Abdul, who has absolutely no income, says.

I can feel the cold penetrating to my bones after just ten minutes sitting on the frigid floor in full outdoor gear. Abdul is barefoot, sitting next to me.

Even though there are several bags full of coal in the corner, the room has no furnace. There isn’t even a chimney. Abdul’s wife Fatima cooks on a small gas burner than gives off no discernible heat. It can barely bring water to a boil, but that is all that’s needed as there is usually nothing else to prepare. The family usually has their tea with local bread called naan. They boil a little rice once a day. The family has a single pan, one pot, one large bowl and six plates (they can even have a visitor over).

Abdul says that all three of his children are sick, while they have given up dreaming about being admitted to the hospital. His oldest, aged 17, looks like a ten-year-old.

Taliban’s revenge

Abdul has another problem next to crippling poverty. He is afraid for his life as he used to be part of the anti-terrorist unit of the previous U.S.-backed government’s police force. He used to work and live near the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Three years ago, his first wife Zaina, who also worked for the anti-terrorist unit, disappeared on her way home from work. The Taliban had previously sent her a threatening letter promising to kill the woman if she did not stop “working for the Americans.” No trace was found of Zaina.

“She has probably been murdered. And they will also kill me if they can find me,” Abdul says. That is the reason we do not mention Abdul’s family name.

He escaped Mazar-i-Sharif for Kabul after the Taliban took over in hopes of leaving the country but says it proved impossible. It is even less possible today.

Many Afghans who used to work for the police force or the army during the previous regime know Abdul’s plight both in terms of poverty and fear for their lives. “There is no chance the U.S. or its allies will help me or those like me to escape this place,” Abdul says.

His family, looking at a future darker than the night in Afghanistan, represents a typical situation for many utterly impoverished Afghans.

Most people lost their source of income after the Taliban took over. Public servants were not paid a cent between August and October because all of Afghanistan’s assets and foreign accounts have been frozen under UN Security Council sanctions, while 40 years of conflict and war have decimated any domestic reserves. A part of officials were paid for the first time in November, while teachers have yet to see a penny from the government.

Businessman Zabihullah distributes 200 food packages to people in need every day, but it’s like a drop of water in the Sahara.

“Many families live off tea and water and are lucky to get a piece of bread every now and then, with no hope of securing better nourishment,” Zabihullah says, adding: “Tea for lunch and a little bread to go with it for dinner if they are lucky. People are living in terrible-terrible conditions.”

Zabihullah, who visited his home village in Badakhshan Province a week ago, says the situation is just as appalling there. People in villages are mostly living off a meal consisting of black tea, milk, salt and naan,” the businessman says. “The situation is just as bad in most provinces.”

No more customers

The streets are lined with people selling their belongings to make some money in Kabul. Everyone has something they want to sell, while there are virtually no buyers. No one has any money.

Everyone says the same thing, that while life has become safer after the Taliban took over, everyone have become completely impoverished and their only desire is to escape abroad. Away from here, is the chorus Postimees hears everywhere we go.

Rohallah (35), selling hot tea between street vendors on the banks of the dry for winter Kabul River, says that he used to work at a construction site and made 5,000 afghanis (€45 today, €55 a year ago) a month that was enough to make ends meet. Him and his 14-year-old son Amanala make 100 afghanis (€0.85) on a good day selling tea. This buys one loaf of naan bread (10 afghanis) and a little over half a kilo of rice (price per kilogram is 150 afghanis). Rohallah has seven children at home, and the money is nowhere near enough to feed the whole family.

In addition to trinket peddlers, the streets of Kabul are filled with thousands of handcart pushers hoping to make if only 20 afghanis (17 euro cents) to buy a few pieces of bread to take home. Postimees talked to a few who had failed to make any money for days.

Rohallah sees leaving Afghanistan as the only way to improve his life. “It is impossible to live here. Everyone wants to leave,” he says. “Personally, I would like to go to France.”

He also admits that the dream is nigh-on impossible to achieve because human traffickers charge $12,000 per person for passage to Europe through Iran and Turkey. Rohallah would have to come up with $108,000 to get his entire family to Europe.

Carpet salesman Muhammadkarim (50) also has seven children but says that he has a realistic chance to leave. He worked as a security guard at the Canadian embassy during the previous government’s time and claims he has been promised the Canadian government will help him emigrate. Canada was among countries accepting the most refugees from Afghanistan even before the Taliban came to power. “I do not want to leave, but I have no choice,” he says. “I have lost my income with which to feed my family.”

Muhammadkarim used to sell one or two carpets a day, while he has only sold one in the last month. The carpets are furthermore not his and he only makes a commission.

Taliban has almost completely distanced itself from the disastrous situation of the people of Afghanistan. Their official position is that they have kept their promise of ridding the country of U.S. authority, while it is up to Allah to help people.

“The world should help us. We are all people in the same world,” carpet salesman Muhammadkarim says.

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