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“A crisis of hunger and starvation”

Conflict, climate-related disasters and COVID-19 have created unprecedented levels of food insecurity, leaving a staggering number of Afghan families one step away from famine.

Mullah Ahmed* and his extended family of 14 are among some 700,000 people forced out of their homes over the past year by conflict in Afghanistan.

While the fighting may now be over, many internally displaced people (IDPs) are facing the devastating economic collapse that has followed. 

Afghans were trapped between converging crises even before the Taliban took power in August last year. Severe drought was withering crops, the COVID-19 pandemic had increased poverty, and the country’s long-running conflict had left over 3 million Afghans internally displaced. 23 million Afghans – 55 per cent of the population – are facing extreme hunger, with nearly 9 million at risk of famine as the humanitarian crisis escalates daily.

UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch described the desperate situation of the displaced people inside Afghanistan.

“It's a crisis of hunger and starvation. People don't have enough to eat, and it's very visible.”

As Afghanistan’s harsh winter sets in, many vulnerable refugees are struggling to stay warm and feed their families. Without money to buy wood, Mullah and his family keep themselves warm by burning strips of old carpet and other combustible rubbish they find in the streets.

See also: Refugee and displaced families are enduring a bleak winter

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Mullah’s* children, Aseela*, 3, and Fauzia*, 9, pictured at their temporary accommodation in Kabul. Mullah, his wife and nine children fled their home in Jalalabad four months ago and now live in a house in Kabul that was abandoned by its owner who fled the country during the Taliban takeover. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell
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Mullah Ahmed* and some of his children sit by the stove at their temporary accommodation in Kabul. Mullah was one of 1,000 families who received $265 during a recent UNHCR distribution in Kabul. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

“I’m very worried about the rest of the winter,” Mullah says, “If we don’t get more help, may Allah forbid, we will have to start begging.”

It’s a familiar story of adapting to survive in Afghanistan. While some families have returned to their home districts with UNHCR’s assistance, they are struggling to repair war-damaged homes and pay for food and fuel. Meanwhile, those like Mullah and his family, who have no home to return to and no work, are facing a dire situation. Humanitarian aid is their only hope of avoiding a downward spiral of crippling debt and hunger.

Mullah and his family arrived in Kabul after fleeing their home in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where they had a small farm. But fighting between former Afghan government forces and the Taliban spread to the area and made farming impossible. Mullah decided the only option was to move to Kabul. “We didn’t think the Taliban would capture the capital as well,” he says. 

It was the latest upheaval in a life shaped by decades of political turmoil. He and his family were refugees in neighbouring Pakistan for nearly 20 years, only returning to Afghanistan in 2010. Two years ago, his brother was killed in a suicide bombing after he went to the southern city of Ghazni to look for work. Mullah is now caring for his widow and two children.

In Kabul, Mullah initially found some work as a porter at the nearby bus station, but it has gradually dried up.

“I used to make 100 or 150 Afghanis ($1.50) a day helping people with luggage. Now I’m lucky if I can make that much in a week,” he says.

 

At the same time, the cost of basic goods like flour and fuel is rising, while the value of the Afghan currency plummets. Mullah was able to buy food on credit, but now local shopkeepers have stopped serving him. He owes them at least 35,000 Afghanis (about $350) – a crushing burden for a family with nothing.

“I hide from the shopkeepers when I see them,” says Mullah.

Mullah and his family live in an abandoned house. The owner fled as the Taliban advanced, asking his neighbour to look after the small compound. The neighbour took pity on Mullah and his family and let them stay rent-free. Other neighbours sometimes give them bread, but many of them are struggling too. For now, they are surviving on charity and the $265 in winterisation assistance they received from UNHCR.

UNHCR’s cash assistance is helping more than 20,000 IDP families in the central region, which includes Kabul and the surrounding provinces. That is a ten-fold increase on last year, according to Ahmad Sattar Faheem, a senior repatriation associate in the agency’s Kabul office.

“It's a crisis of hunger and starvation. People don't have enough to eat, and it's very visible .” - Babar Baloch

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Mullah Ahmed* sits with some of his children. He and his extended family of 14 are among some 700,000 people forced out of their homes over the past year by conflict in Afghanistan. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

For the most part, IDPs are scattered in cheap rental accommodation or living with relatives. For a few weeks after the fall of Kabul, some set up temporary camps in the capital, but most of those people have now returned home. Those who remain live in dismal conditions, scrounging for food and fuel.

“Events in Afghanistan over the past year have unfolded with dizzying speed and with profound consequences for the Afghan people. The world is perplexed and looking for the right way to react. Meanwhile, a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said.

“My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan. Humanitarian partners are on the ground, and they are delivering, despite the challenges. Help us scale up to stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.”

UNHCR urgently needs to provide cash assistance to help vulnerable families, like Mullah’s, stave off hunger, disease and malnutrition. Please give generously to help refugees and internally displaced people in Afghanistan who are on the edge of starvation and facing a harsh winter.

Our partner Canva is matching donations so you will be able to double your impact. Canva will match donations up to $100,000.

*names have been changed to protect privacy.

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