- Yogita Limaya
- BBC News – Herat
Some Afghans give their starving sons sedatives to put them to sleep, others sell their daughters and human organs to survive.
In the second winter since the Taliban took over, and with foreign money flowing into Afghanistan still frozen, millions are on the verge of starvation.
Abdel Wahhab said, “Our babies are crying and can’t sleep, and we don’t have food to feed them, so we buy some pills that make them sleepy from the pharmacy, so their eyes fall asleep.”
Abdul Wahab lives outside Herat, the country’s third largest city, in a cluster of thousands of small mud houses, which have grown over the decades, and are now crowded with displaced people whose homes have been destroyed by wars and natural disasters.
Abdel Wahab, one of a group of about ten men gathered around us. We asked them: How many people give their children drugs?
They replied: “Many of us, but all of us.”
A little boy pulled a bag of pills from his pocket: they were the sedative alprazolam, which is usually prescribed by a doctor to treat anxiety disorders.
Ghulam, who has six children, said he also gives these pills to his one-year-old son.
Others showed us strips of escitalopram and sertraline, commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety, which they said they were giving to their own children.
Doctors say that when given to undernourished children, these drugs can cause liver damage, along with a host of other problems such as chronic fatigue and sleep and behavior disturbances.
At a local pharmacy, we discovered that you could buy five used medicine pills for ten Afghans (about 10 US cents), or the price of a loaf of bread.
Most of the families we interviewed shared a few pieces of bread with each other every day.
One of the women told us that in the morning they ate dry bread and in the evening they dipped it in water to moisten it and make it soft.
The United Nations has said a humanitarian “catastrophe” is unfolding in Afghanistan.
Most of the men in the area outside Herat are day laborers, who have lived a difficult life for years.
But when the Taliban took power last August, with no international recognition from the new de facto government, the flow of foreign money into Afghanistan stalled, leading to an economic collapse that has left men out of work nearly every day.
And on the few days they might find a chance to work, they only make about $1 a day.
Everywhere we went, we found people forced to take fatal steps to save their families from starvation.
Ammar (not her real name) said she had surgery three months ago, to remove her kidney and showed us the scars from her surgery where her stomach was cut 9 inches long.
He is a young boy, in his twenties, whose identity we have hidden to protect him.
“There was no way out,” he told us, “I heard a kidney could be sold at a local hospital, so I went there and told them I wanted to sell my kidney. phone call asking me to come to the hospital”.
“They did some medical tests, then they drugged me and I passed out. I was scared but I had no other choice.”
Ammar received $3,100 for her kidney, most of which went to repay the borrowed money to buy food for her family.
She said: “If we eat food one night, it might not be available the next day, and after I sell my kidney, I feel half a man and I feel hopeless. If life goes on like this, I feel like I might die.”
Selling organs for money is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
This was happening even before the Taliban took over. But now, even with such a scary trade, people still find they can’t find a way to survive.
In a cold, unfurnished house, we meet a young mother who says she sold her kidney seven months ago.
They were supposed to repay the loan taken out to buy a flock of sheep, but they all died in a flood that hit the area a few years ago and the family lost their source of income and livelihood.
The $2,700 they received from the sale of the kidney wasn’t enough to pay off the debt. “Now we are forced to sell our two-year-old daughter as well. The ones we borrowed money from harass us every day and instead of paying the debt, they asked us about our daughter,” she said.
Her husband said, “I am ashamed and embarrassed by our situation. Sometimes I feel that death is better than a life like this.”
We have heard here many times about people selling their daughters.
“I sold my five-year-old daughter for 100,000 Afghans, just over $1,000,” said Nizamuddin, which is less than half the price of a kidney, according to what we found on the ground.
The man bit his lip with burning and tears in his eyes. The people here have lost their dignity due to hunger.
“We know it is against Islamic law and that we are endangering the lives of our children, but there is no other alternative,” said Abdul Ghaffar, one of the neighborhood’s notables.
In one of the houses we entered, we met Nazia, a small and playful four-year-old girl, who changed her facial features to look silly as she played with her 18-month-old brother, Shamsullah.
“We have no money to buy food, so I announced in a local mosque that I wanted to sell my daughter,” said her father, Hasretullah.
Nazia was sold to marry a boy from a family living in the southern province of Kandahar.
The girl will be sent to her new family when she turns 14 and, so far, Hasretullah has received two payments of the agreed amount.
“I spent most of the money buying food and medicine for my youngest son. Look at him, he’s malnourished,” the man says, as he lifts the shirt off his son, Shamsullah’s belly, to show his bloated stomach.
The staggeringly high rates of malnutrition are evidence that hunger is already affecting children under five in Afghanistan.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen an increase in the number of people visiting its institutions that treat malnutrition across the country. The increase is 47% this year compared to last year.
MSF’s nutrition center in Herat is the only facility well equipped to treat cases of malnutrition and serves not only Herat but also the neighboring provinces of Ghor and Badghis, where malnutrition rates have increased by 55% in the last year .
Since last year, the center has increased the number of beds to cope with the number of sick children who have to be hospitalised. However, the facility is always overcrowded with patients.
The center often has to treat children for more than one disease.
Omid, who is 14 months old, is malnourished, has a hernia and blood poisoning. And he weighs only four kilograms: doctors have told us that a normal child at this age weighs at least 6.6 kilograms.
His mother, Amna, had to borrow money to pay for her trip to the hospital when Omid started vomiting severely.
We asked Hamidullah Mutawakkil, spokesman for the Taliban provincial government in Herat, what they are doing to address the hunger crisis.
He replied: “The situation has been exacerbated by international sanctions on Afghanistan and the Afghan asset freeze. Our government is trying to determine the number of people in need, as many are lying about their living conditions because they think they can get help. “
Mutawakel stood his ground despite being told we had seen overwhelming evidence of how bad the situation was.
He also said the Taliban is trying to create job opportunities, adding, “We look forward to opening iron ore mines and a pipeline project.”
This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
People have told us that they feel abandoned and neglected by the Taliban government and the international community.
Hunger is a slow and silent killer, and its effects aren’t always immediately apparent.
The true extent of this crisis may never appear because the world is not blamed for it and nobody is counting on it.
Participate in coverage: Imogen Anderson and Malik Mudasir