‘When your stomach is empty, it feels even colder’: In Afghanistan, desperate for the next meal – Grid News

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‘When your stomach is empty, it feels even colder’: In Afghanistan, desperate for the next meal

What Khadim can’t get out of his head is how the man started sobbing like a small child. “He was a former soldier,” the 60-year-old shopkeeper in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, told Grid, describing the desperate customer who appeared on his doorstep the other day.

Like millions of Afghans, the ex-soldier’s family was in dire need of that most basic necessity: food.

He wasn’t just any soldier — he had been a member of Afghanistan’s elite special forces. And his unit had been at the forefront of the fight against the Taliban insurgents who seized power six month ago, as the last American troops left the country. He had tried and failed to flee the country, and he told Khadim he had sold his possessions; his family now leads a desperate, nomadic existence, moving from house to house on an almost monthly basis. Finding work — a struggle for anyone as the Afghan economy crumbles — is a virtually impossible challenge for someone who fought against the country’s new rulers.

“We both cried,” Khadim said. He gave the man flour, cooking oil, and some rice and some beans. “I told him to pay me whenever he gets a job. He was desperate. He was broken.”

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He is not alone. Six months after the U.S. departure, nearly 23 million Afghans — or more than half the population — are facing acute food shortages. The U.N. warns that nearly 9 million people are at risk of starvation as food prices rise, job losses multiply and the Afghan banking system teeters near collapse. The International Labour Organization estimates that half a million Afghans have lost their jobs as a result of the U.S. exit. That toll is expected to balloon by several hundred thousand by the middle of this year.

View from the marketplace

Grid spoke to shopkeepers in the capital, Kabul, and beyond — Herat in the west, Badakshan in the northeast and Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan — to gauge how life has changed since the fall of the government last August. Without exception, these merchants described a dangerous spiral: As incomes have dried up, their customers have bought less, or visited the markets less frequently; at the same time, the shopkeepers themselves have struggled to source essential goods. That, along with a precipitous collapse in the local Afghani currency, has sent prices of basic staples soaring.

Grid gathered data from several cities, where the local marketplaces offer a snapshot of the crisis — a look at how the supply crunch and currency collapse have put a basket of basic goods out of reach for so many.

Until last summer, a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of potatoes, for example, cost roughly 21 cents (U.S.). Today, it’s almost twice that in many places. In mountainous Badakhshan, the price has more than doubled, to an average of 47 cents. Chicken costs around a third more than it did then. It’s the same story with beans, flour and other staples. For millions of Afghans, routine trips to the market have become heart-rending experiences.

So too with visits to the bank.

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Zarif, a shopkeeper in Kabul, said he faced multiple problems sourcing supplies — including finding the cash he needs to pay wholesalers. One day in early February, he spent around five hours waiting in a bank queue, only to find, when he finally reached the cashier, that the branch was out of money. “I couldn’t even scream at [the cashier],” he said. “It was not his fault. Sometimes it is impossible to describe the situation. You have to be here to see how bad it is.” In an echo of his compatriot from Herat, Zarif added: “I cried on the way home.”

The crisis in liquidity has less to do with Taliban rule; it is more a function of decisions made by the international community.

As Grid reported in January, the U.S. and other countries have frozen more than $8 billion in Afghan government funds because they refuse to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate leaders of the country. Meanwhile the Taliban remains subject to U.S. and international sanctions that block its access to the global financial system. The result: The banking system has been crushed and the new government has struggled to pay salaries. Around three-quarters of the previous government’s budget was covered by international funds. For its part, the Taliban has tightened limits on bank withdrawals, and forbidden transactions in anything but the local Afghani tender, further complicating things for a cash-reliant economic system in which — until last year — the use of American dollars was widespread.

(A recent U.S. decision to divide some $7 billion in frozen Afghan government assets between a fund for victims of the 9/11 attacks and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan has sparked outrage inside the country — including among many who detest the Taliban. The White House has been criticized for using any Afghan funds to address 9/11-related claims at a time when millions of people in Afghanistan are going hungry.)

The various restrictions have punished even those fortunate enough to have sources of income, or savings in the bank. “In Herat, you can withdraw only 5000 Afghanis [or around $54] per week from the bank. Imagine that you have a family with 10 members — like my own,” said Khadim, “What can you buy with that money? Can you feed everyone properly? No. The situation is critical.”

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Limits elsewhere are more generous, but nowhere near high enough, several Afghans told Grid. In any case, banks often don’t have physical cash on hand, as Zarif saw firsthand in Kabul. Word that a branch might have money to dispense spreads fast, and then “you have to wait in these endless lines,” Zarif said.

Off the payroll

Others don’t bother with the lines because they have no money left in their accounts. Razia, a government medical worker, said she hadn’t been paid since the U.S. forces left. The Taliban authorities have told her they don’t have the funds. “The situation really is like hell on earth,” the 28-year-old told Grid. “We don’t live. We just breathe.”

When the Taliban took over, Razia was among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans on the government payroll, the vast majority of whom were paid using those international funds. Although nongovernmental agencies have stepped in to pay thousands of Razia’s colleagues around the country, she is among those still waiting — and still working — in the hope that they might one day receive even part of what they are due.

But hope, like so much else, has become a precious commodity in Afghanistan.

Aesfa, a 53-year-old single mother in Badakhshan, told Grid she is filled with fear for the future. Afraid and worried — mostly for her family.


She has seven children — five daughters, two sons. Local Taliban leaders won’t allow women to work. One of her sons is in school. Her husband died years ago. That left her eldest son, aged 25, until last summer the sole breadwinner for the family. Today he can no longer appear in public, much less look for work, because of what he did before the Americans left: fight the Taliban, alongside local forces deployed by the U.S.-backed government.

Over the past six months, Aesfa has depleted her savings; she now relies on handouts from neighbors and others in her community to feed herself and her children. There is no regular income and no hope of one, she told Grid. Some of those market staples now seem like luxuries. “I can’t remember what chicken tastes like,” she said.

In January, the United Nations launched the largest humanitarian appeal in its history for a single country — $4.4 billion, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe inside Afghanistan. Martin Griffiths, the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief chief, implored the international community not to “shut the door on the people of Afghanistan.”

He might have been thinking of Aesfa, in Badakshan.

“The weather is cold,” she said, “and when your stomach is empty it feels even colder.”

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Fatima  Faizi
    Fatima Faizi

    Freelance Reporter

    Fatima Faizi is an Afghan journalist.