- By Yogita Limaye
- BBC News, Herat
Afghans give their starving children drugs to put them to sleep – others have sold their daughters and their organs to survive. In this second winter since the Taliban took power and foreign funds were frozen, millions of people are on the brink of starvation.
“Our children are crying all the time, and they are not sleeping. We have no food,” says Abdul Wahab.
“So we go to the pharmacy, we buy tablets and we give them to our children to make them feel sleepy.”
He lives just outside Herat, the country’s third-largest city, in a settlement of thousands of small mud houses that has grown over the decades, filled with people displaced and battered by war and natural disasters.
Abdul is one of a group of nearly a dozen men who have gathered around us. We asked him how many of them gave their children drugs to put them to sleep.
“Many of us, all of us,” they reply.
Ghulam Hazrat reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a strip of tablets. It was alprazolam – tranquilizers usually prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.
Ghulam has six children, the youngest is one year old. “I even give it to him,” he said.
Others showed us strips of escitalopram and sertraline tablets that they said they gave to their children. These medications are usually prescribed to treat depression and anxiety.
Doctors say that when given to young children who do not have adequate nutrition, these drugs can cause liver damage, as well as a host of other problems such as chronic fatigue, sleep and behavior.
In a local pharmacy, we found that we could buy five tablets of the drugs used for 10 afghanis (about 65 FCFA), the price of a piece of bread.
Most of the families we met shared a few pieces of bread with each other each day. A woman told us that she ate dry bread in the morning, and in the evening she soaked it in water to make it moist.
The UN explains that a humanitarian “catastrophe” was currently unfolding in Afghanistan.
The majority of men in the region outside of Herat work as daily labourers. They have been leading a difficult life for years.
But when the Taliban took power last August, without the new de facto government being recognized by the international community, foreign funds intended for Afghanistan were frozen, causing an economic collapse that left the men without work most of the time.
On the rare days when they find work, they earn around 100 Afghanis, or just over a dollar (635 FCFA).
Everywhere we went, we found people forced to take extreme measures to save their families from starvation.
Ammar (not his real name) told us he had surgery to remove his kidney three months ago and he showed us a nine inch scar – the stitch marks are still a little pink – running through her abdomen from the front to the back of her body.
He is in his twenties, in what should have been the peak of his life. We hide his identity to protect him.
“There was no way out. I had heard that a kidney could be sold at a local hospital. I went there and told them I wanted to do it. A few weeks later, I I received a phone call asking me to come to the hospital,” he says.
“They did some tests, then they injected me with something that knocked me unconscious. I was scared, but I had no choice.”
Ammar was paid around 270,000 Afghanis (1,959,013 FCFA) for this, most of which was used to repay money he had borrowed to buy food for his family.
“If we eat one night, we don’t eat the next. After selling my kidney, I feel like half a person. I feel hopeless. If life goes on like this, I I feel like I’m going to die,” he said.
Selling organs for money is not an unknown practice in Afghanistan. This was happening even before the Taliban took over. But today, even after making such a painful choice, people find that they still cannot find the means to survive.
In a bare, cold house, we met a young mother who says she sold her kidney seven months ago. They also had to pay off a debt – money they had borrowed to buy a flock of sheep. The animals died in a flood a few years ago and they lost their means of earning a living.
The 240,000 Afghanis (1,706,215 FCFA) she received for the kidney are not enough.
“Now we are forced to sell our two-year-old daughter. The people we borrowed money from harass us every day, telling us to give us your daughter if you can’t pay us back,” she says. .
“I’m so ashamed of our situation. Sometimes I feel like it’s better to die than live like this,” says her husband.
Again and again we heard of people selling their daughters.
“I sold my five-year-old daughter for 100,000 Afghanis,” Nizamuddin confesses. It’s less than half the price of a kidney, from what we found in the field. He bit his lip, and his eyes started to water.
The dignity with which people here led their lives was shattered by hunger.
“We know this is against Islamic laws and that we are putting our children’s lives at risk, but there is no other solution,” said Abdul Ghafar, one of the community leaders.
In one house we met Nazia, four years old, a cheerful little girl who made funny faces while playing with her 18-month-old brother Shamshullah.
“We don’t have money to buy food, so I announced to the local mosque that I wanted to sell my daughter,” says her father Hazratullah.
Nazia was sold to be married to a boy from a family in Kandahar province in the south of the country. At 14, she will be sent away. Hazratullah received two payments for her.
“I used most of it to buy food, and some of it for medicine for my youngest son. Look at him, he’s malnourished,” Hazratullah says as he pulls up Shamsullah’s shirt to show us his swollen belly. .
The staggering increase in malnutrition rates is proof of the impact that hunger is already having on children under five in Afghanistan.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen the number of admissions to its malnutrition treatment centers increase by 47% this year compared to the previous year.
MSF’s feeding center in Herat is the only facility well equipped to treat malnutrition not only in Herat, but also in the neighboring provinces of Ghor and Badghis, where malnutrition rates increased by 55% last year.
Since last year, they have increased the number of beds to cope with the number of sick children they have to admit. But despite this, the establishment is almost always more than full. Increasingly, children arriving need to be treated for more than one illness.
Omid suffers from malnutrition, hernia and sepsis. At 14 months, he weighs only 4 kg. Doctors told us that a normal baby at this age should weigh at least 6.6 kg. His mother Aamna had to borrow money to travel to the hospital when he started vomiting profusely.
We asked Hameedullah Motawakil, spokesperson for the Taliban provincial government in Herat, what they were doing to fight hunger.
“The situation is the result of international sanctions against Afghanistan and the freezing of Afghan assets. Our government is trying to determine how many people are in need. Many are lying about their situation because they think they can get help.” , he said. It is a position he has maintained despite being told that we have seen overwhelming evidence of the seriousness of the situation.
He also said the Taliban were trying to create jobs. “We are looking to open iron mines and a gas pipeline project.”
It is unlikely to happen soon.
People told us that they felt abandoned, by the Taliban government and the international community.
Hunger is a slow and silent killer, its effects are not always immediately visible.
Far from the world’s attention, the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan may never be truly revealed, because no one matters.
Additional reporting by Imogen Anderson and Malik Mudassir.
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