“Many will starve to death this winter”

As the Government of Afghanistan and the international community came together this week in Geneva, displaced people, returnees and host communities in Afghanistan are at risk of being left further behind. At the same time, Covid-19 is back with full force.

Eight months since the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in western Afghanistan, it has been estimated that one-third of the population has been infected.

The impact of the pandemic has left families and communities struggling to cope. As a second wave looks set to hit, along with the arrival of a bitter winter amid increased conflict and political uncertainty, displaced people fear that what did not kill them the first time around will come back with a vengeance.

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Ghiyassuddin, 17, attends an NRC supported Education in Emergencies (EiE) class for displaced children in Hirat funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). He is in fifth grade now and when he finishes sixth, he will be transferred to a public school which is approximately one mile away from his home. The class he attends now is in his community and he has been here since grade one. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic school closure, his family sent him to Iran for work, but as soon as the schools begun to reopen, he returned to Afghanistan to continue his studies. However, four other children from the same class never returned to their classes after the pandemic. Some of them took the same journey as Ghiyassuddin to Iran and now work there. Another one went back to his village in Ghor province and did not return. 

“We are ten family members and I am weak and have injuries on my leg after I fell off a building in Iran,” Said Mohammad Asa, Ghiyassuddin’s father. “I don’t have any specific skill to work and have a regular income. I have been in the construction work for ages and now, I’m even not able to continue in this job.”

“When the Covid-19 restrictions began and schools closed, I sent him to Iran for work. He spent five months there and was sending us money. When the classes began to restart, he told me that he is willing to come back. I supported him despite the needs that we wanted him to work and earn for us. I know the importance of education as I am illiterate. I know how important it is to be educated. We did not have the chance to attend school, but there was a little window open for him and we shouldn’t have closed that.”

“He can’t attend some of his classes and that is when we have nothing at home and I ask him to join me at work. I know it is not the right thing that I do, but it is when we remain without any other option. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I was working for 70 AFN per day ($1) while a daily wage earns 400 AFN to 1,000 AFN per day. There is always lack something at home. When we have rice, there is no cooking oil and when I get that then the wheat flour gets short. There is always something missing at home and he is my youngest son and I hope he would lend a hand to support his family. Sending him to school is the first priority for us, but many times things in life go as you can’t predict it.” 

“Schools have impacted them a lot. I am very happy that they can now read and write. Previously, there was no one at our home to even write down someone’s phone number, but since this classes have started now at least four of my children are able to read and write.” 

“I worked for three months and paid for the smuggler because I have travelled illegally to Iran. I worked for another two months and supported my family during the pandemic.” Said Ghiyassuddin. “I go to school in the mornings and work in the afternoons. During the summer, I worked in the field picking grapes and apples and earned 100 to 150 AFN per day.”

“I was in the construction work in Iran and I realized how difficult it was. I don’t want to continue my life working in the construction field and hoping to continue my studies and work part time as a technician or so before I get a full job.” 

Photo: Enayatullah Azad / NRC
Read caption Ghiyassuddin, 17, with his father Mohammad Asa. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the family have been surviving on just 70 afghanis per day (equivalent to USD 1). Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, I was working for 70 afghanis per day (equivalent to USD 1) while a daily wage is typically between 400–1,000 afghanis per day. There is always something lacking at home. When we have rice, there is no cooking oil; and when we have oil, then the wheat flour gets short,” Mohammad Asa, an internally displaced person in Herat tells us.

He and other parents have had to take on debt, cut meals and medical expenses, and make impossible decisions like sending their children away to work or forcing girls into early marriage to earn a dowry.

Almost the entire population is missing out on a social safety net, and 14 million people are in humanitarian need. Yet, nearly 11 months into the year, the Humanitarian Response Plan (an UN-led plan involving several humanitarian organisations) is less than half funded.

When we have rice, there is no cooking oil; and when we have oil, then the wheat flour gets short
Mohammad Asa, internally displaced person in Herat

Humanitarians fear that the situation will get even worse next year as the security situation worsens and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, including spiralling food insecurity and catastrophic debt, continue to mount.

Unable to return home

Despite the pandemic, conflict continues to rage across the country, preventing people from being able to return home.

“It is a miserable life and every moment is torture for us. When there is peace in the country, I will not stay here for a minute longer, but return to my village,” says Jumma Khan, 56. He is a community leader in Shahrak-e-Sabz, the largest settlement for internally displaced people in western Afghanistan, with 14,500 households.

Mullah Mohammad Ayub, 42, is one of the countless displaced persons in Hirat whose heart is beating for his hometown, but can’t go there. He and his family of five are forced from his home in Bala Morghab district of Badghis province three years ago. Since then, they live in an IDP site for drought and conflict-affected families in Shaidayee camp. Some 7,000 households live in a private owned land in Shaidayee. Less than a kilometer to the east is another IDP camp that hosts an estimated 40,000 households named Shahrake-sabz. These families have been displaced from Badghis, Faryab and Ghor Province three years ago due to drought and conflict. 

Ayub desparately looks for the betterment of the security situation in Bala Morghab where he can go and start up with agricultural activities and livelihoods.  

“I follow the news of my hometown very closely through the radio. We don’t have electricity connections or a television here and I usually listen to the radio on my mobile phone that I charge with a small solar panel. There wasn’t any concerning news on my district and I went to see if I can go back to home with my family. I went there and I spent only one night. There was fighting ongoing and I was about to be killed. The security situation is volatile everywhere in the country and the media ignores many news if it is not the matter of collapsing a district center or a province.”

“It is very hard to live here and I have taken a lot of personal loans now. I am cleric and if I ask for a loan people do not say no to me. I have taken loans from my brother-in-law who lives in Turkey, cousins in Iran and people in Badghis. I have a rich and fertile field in Bala Morghab and if there is any chance to go back I can work hard and pay their money within two years or less. But we are stuck here. We can’t go back home and neither do we work here. If there is peace, I won’t stay here for one extra day. I don’t know if peace will prevail sometime soon in this country but I hope for it. This is not the life we do here. I was teaching students and we had everything in life we needed. Here, we do not even have water to wash our hands and face. We are very thankful to NRC for providing water for us. Accessing water was a great challenge for us, especially during the hot summer season. Children and women were providing water for the whole family. It was taking them hours to find a good willing neighbor who was helping us with a small water container. Sometimes we were also paying for water. Now, we have sufficient water at our doorstep. We have enough water for cooking and cleaning. We are not roaming around the camp for a water container and even the neighbors are happier that we are not disturbing them anymore.” 

Mullah Nohammad Ayub knows the importance of education and though he struggles to provide food for his family, he is keen to support his children get education. He has convinced the headmaster to admit her daughter and two more girls from the camp and teach them for free as there is no school in the camp for displaced children.

“Those who are running a school knows who we are and what is our financial status. I went to a private school nearby and explained that we can’t afford the fees you require and as their parents we have failed to provide them the education they are entitled to, but it is up to you now to help them along the right path. The headmaster offered scholarships for three girls. Now, my daughter, Bibi Amina, 8, and two of her friends Brishna, 10, which means (brightness) and Khanzada, 9, are attending class. We just provide stationaries and transportation for them. Education is very vital for children and will help them move out of poverty when they are young.”

When I asked him why is he look much older than his actual age and the reply was: “I have lost three sons in this war. Three young sons!”

Photo: Enayatullah Azad / NRC
Read caption Mullah Mohammad Ayub, 42, is one of countless displaced persons in Herat who longs to return to his hometown. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

At another site for drought and conflict-affected families less than a kilometre away, Mullah Mohammad Ayub, 42, follows the situation in his hometown closely through the radio. He hopes that he and his family can return one day and he can restart his livelihood.

“When there wasn’t any worrying news about my district, I went to see if I could go back home with my family. I spent only one night there. There was fighting still going on, and I was in danger of being killed. The security situation is volatile everywhere in the country.”

At risk of being left behind

Yet as the Government of Afghanistan and the international community committed to common objectives for sustainable development, prosperity and peace in Afghanistan, they pledged less money than four years ago despite skyrocketing needs. As a result, internally displaced people feel left behind.

Mohammad Amin, 24, (Anonymous name) and his family are from Qadis district of Badghis. Four years ago, both his father and brother were killed by a non-sate armed group in Qadis. His father was the community head and the Afghan National Army (ANA) often visited him in his home. The non-state armed group executed them for supporting government. 

“They were not soldiers nor government employees. Government officials were usually visiting us because my father was the community head. We can’t say no to our guests when they come to visit you at your home. And it is our culture to offer them tea and sit and drink that with them. Like today, I am the community head here and you came to visit me. I can’t refuse meeting you in my home.” 

“If receiving a guest at your home is a crime, that was the only crime my father committed. Now, I have to feed three families of fourteen people and thirteen of them are female. My brother and father were on a motorbike on their way to Bazar when they were shot to dead.” 

“When they were killed, we fled from the area. I was the only male member of the family and the rest thirteen were all female. I was frightened and needed to protect the family. We fled to the mountains first with all the children and women because there was a rumor that they would come and kill everyone at home. We spent a night in the mountains and came down the day after, got a car and fled from the area.
Now, it has been four years that we live here in Hirat. We have erected our tent on a private land in Kahdistan area, later the government and NGOs asked us to move in Shahrak-e-sabz. We couldn’t make a makeshift house for us there and now, this is the governmental land and we have a roof over our head.”

Amin has to feed fourteen people. There is no work for thousands of displaced people in Hirat and he doesn’t have any other source of income. The. Covid-19 pandemic has deteriorated the situation for him and he has married off his three sisters to feed the rest of the family. There is him, his wife and two little kids. His mother with four daughters and his brother’s widow with her three daughters. 

“I sold three of my sisters and they are seven, nine and eleven years old. The only one remained at home is a three years old sister. She was not born when my father was killed. I need to take a bag of wheat flour (50kg) for the family once in a week which costs 1,600 to 1,800 AFN. We have no income here and it has been eighteen months that we have not received any assistance like food or cash. We received soaps and shampoo some six months ago. People are starving here and you gave them soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to do what? Covid-19 did not kill the displaced population and this time it will because they are weaker than six months ago and many will starve to dead this winter.”

“In 2014, when my father and brother was alive, I wanted to go to Europe for better life opportunities and work and wanted to seek asylum in Germany, but I was arrested by Turkish border police and they deported me back to Afghanistan. Wish I had arrived there safely, now my father and brother would have been alive and my family would not have suffered this much.” 

Photo: Enayatullah Azad / NRC
Read caption Mohammad Amin*, 24, fled to Herat from the Qadis district of Badghis when his father and brother were killed by an armed group.

“We have no income here, and it has been 18 months since we received any assistance like food or cash,” explains Mohammad Amin*, 24, a community leader in the Shahrak-e-Sabz settlement.

“People are starving here. Covid-19 did not kill the displaced population, but this time it will. They are weaker than they were six months ago, and many will starve to death this winter.”

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*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity