A couple of dank, gray Soviet-era dormitories straddling a dusty playground, the Kabul City Orphanage has always been a forgotten institution, barely managing to clothe and feed its 900 orphans, boys and girls ranging in age from four to 15. But since the Taliban fled Kabul, along with many of the local charities that kept the orphanage afloat, these orphans of war — and poverty — have become 900 cries for help that, so far, have gone unheeded.
WITH A SHRUG, Fazel, the oldest orphan at almost 16, sums up his material world. “This is all I’ve got, he says, “what I’m wearing.” A thin, tattered Afghan shirt, covering a pair of torn dirt-brown pants that are two sizes too small, revealing cracked rubber summer sandals and bare feet caked with dry mud.
But it’s not summer. It’s December, and so cold that Fazel prefers to spend most of his time inside, huddled over a cinder block that somehow draws heat from an old plug and two exposed wires. He shares this 100-square-foot room with four other boys. This has been his home since he turned seven.
Almost emotionless, but with a disturbing nervous twitch, Fazel recounts his story. “My uncle brought me here. It was after I came home from school one day and found both my parents dead. They were killed by shelling. There was so much shelling when I was young. It’s almost all I remember. My parents always warned me to lie down to avoid being hit. They forgot to lie down.”
Like most of the orphans here, Fazel lost at least one of his parents in the relentless inter-factional fighting that pummeled Kabul after the mujahedeen toppled the Afghan Communist puppet government in 1992, only to turn against each other. More than 50,000 civilians in Kabul were killed.
“I used to spend a lot of my time dreaming about them,” recalled Fazel, almost deadpan. “I chatted with them in my dreams. My father would be dressed to go to the bazaar. My mother would be making my favorite beef stew. But that was a long time ago.”
ESCAPING TO A ‘BETTER WORLD’
These days, Fazel, a studious young man, spends hours reading from the Koran, and from a collection of 13th century poems by the mystical Persian poet, Hofez. Besides an eraser, a room key, and a wrapper from a gift box of strawberry cream-filled cookies, the books are his only possessions. He says the readings help him to escape to a “better world,” and give him the strength to take care of his little brother, Mahmood, who is just 10.
That was hard enough before the U.S. bombing of Kabul. Some bombs fell only a few hundred yards from the orphanage. “We were frightened at first,” says Fazel, whose large brown eyes look like they have seen years too much, “but we got used to it.”
The money — and the water well — dried up with this latest war. Now, the pump only provides for a tenth of the children’s drinking and washing needs. The orphanage’s pharmacy is almost empty. It contains a few ripped boxes of skin cream, but no antibiotics, no cough medicine, and not even a bandage for a cut or scrape.
In the kitchen, which could only be described as Dickensian, there’s only enough food — rice and beans — for another two weeks. Fazel says he goes hungry two to three days a week.
He’s used to that, too.
A HAMMER, BUT NO NAILS
None of the staff of about a dozen men has been paid in four months. Mohammed, an instructor, tries to teach Fazel the basics of carpentry in one of the orphanage’s four vocational arts classes. The orphanage has one hammer and a dull saw, but no more nails or wood to work with.
“There was a German NGO (non-governmental organization) that helped us before,” says Mohammed, gesturing towards the faded blue sign above his door that reads, in German, “Workshop.” “But when the war started, they fled, and haven’t come back.”
Abdul Sabur, the director of the girls’ section of the orphanage, says the recent fighting has affected several of his 86 girls. “They’ve got psychological problems, all of them,” he says, “but some are very bad off. They can’t sleep, and can’t keep down the little food they have.”
Sabur turns to caress the scabby cheek of a little charge, maybe seven-years-old, but already stooped like a sickly grandmother. “These kids are the future of the country. Ours is a sad country. I try to make them feel safe and happy, but they are miserable. It’s a difficult task.”
In another painful reminder of how hopeless these children are, one day recently a Jeep full of Northern Alliance military police pulled in and took the orphanage’s proctor away. The man is now being questioned for the possible embezzlement of up to $15,000 of orphanage funds, which disappeared the day Kabul fell. There are rumors the proctor was “a turban,” local slang for being in cahoots with the Taliban.
Those funds would have provided the pharmacy with drugs, the carpentry shop with nails and wood, and filled Fazel’s belly after dark, when he tucks into his old military cot and wraps a frayed blanket around his under-developed body. That’s when Fazel looks most vulnerable, and homesick. But if asked about it, he’d probably just say, “I’m used to it.”
NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in Afghanistan.