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‘The situation is dire’: Inside Afghanistan’s ‘fast unraveling’ humanitarian crisis

“We don’t see meat, even in a month,” said a mother struggling to feed her five malnourished children.
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/ Source: NBC News

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — A diet of rice, beans and crusts of dry bread drove Sakina’s family to the verge of starvation. Her 2-year-old son’s irregular heartbeat sent her into the snow and freezing cold of Afghanistan’s mountains in a bid to save little Nisar Ahmed. 

She traveled by group taxi for more than an hour to get to this hospital in Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold during the war, now fighting severe hunger.  

“He’s been sick for like two months and not recovering,” Sakina, 27, a mother of five who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

Her family’s trials risk overwhelming her, with her initially confident voice breaking as she tries to discreetly wipe away tears behind her black and silver-speckled shawl while her 3-month-old baby girl wails at her side. 

“We’ve not been able to feed him very well,” she said of her son, speaking in Pashto through a translator, about the boy who weighed only 17 pounds, was very weak and needed oxygen every two hours.

Fatima, an Afghan mother who goes by only one name, caring for her 10-month-old daughter Salma in Maidan Shahr Hospital’s acute-malnutrition ward.
Fatima, an Afghan mother who goes by only one name, caring for her 10-month-old daughter Salma in Maidan Shahr Hospital’s acute-malnutrition ward.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

The problem is a lack of protein, she said, adding that her other four children, aged 3 months, 5, 8 and 11, had not been admitted to the hospital but were not much healthier than Nisar Ahmed.  

“We don’t see meat, even in a month,” she said.

Sakina and her family are among the 23 million people — more than half of Afghanistan’s population — who are in dire need of assistance, according to the United Nations. 

Earlier this month the U.N. launched a more than $5 billion funding appeal for Afghanistan — its largest-ever single country aid drive — in an effort to shore up basic services that have all but collapsed since the Taliban took control of the country in mid-August.

“We are in a fast unraveling humanitarian crisis, and the level of suffering is quite unparalleled,” Sam Mort, chief of communication, advocacy and civic engagement for UNICEF in Afghanistan, said. 

“We have a drought, we are in winter,” said Mort. The problem is vast — not only is the country dealing with a long-running drought, and a usually frigid winter, 23 million are going hungry, there have been outbreaks of measles, dengue fever and acute watery diarrhea, she said. 

The number of people going hungry has risen dramatically since September when the U.N.’s World Food Program said 14 million did not have enough to eat. Now the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on food says that 8.7 million people are at risk of starvation. Meanwhile, millions of girls are out of school, and food prices are going up, putting the basics out of reach for many across the country.

The lack of funding has battered Afghanistan’s already troubled economy —  international support for Afghanistan was suspended and billions of dollars of the country’s assets abroad, mostly in the United States, were frozen after the Taliban takeover.

Taliban soldiers assist Afghans at a UNICEF distribution center in Kabul.
Taliban soldiers assist Afghans at a UNICEF distribution center in Kabul. Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

The government has essentially been unable to pay salaries, and jobs across the economy have disappeared.

More than half a million people have lost their jobs since the Taliban takeover, the U.N.’s International Labour Organization said this month, warning that those numbers are expected to jump as high as 900,000, particularly because of restrictions on women in the workplace. 

Unemployment is often cited as the reason for malnutrition, Mort said.

“Almost every single one of them will say, ‘My husband lost his job,’” she said of the women she speaks to. “Whether that was a job in government, whether it was a job in the army, whether it was a job in construction, whether it was a job in business, all those jobs have dried up. There is no money to buy food.”

“The situation is dire,” she added.

The U.S. announced on Jan. 11 that it was giving an additional $308 million in humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, bringing total U.S. humanitarian aid to more than $780 million since October. 

U.S. and European diplomats met with representatives of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in Norway last week to discuss how to alleviate the crisis, with Western diplomats tying the release of any additional funds to improvement in human rights, especially for women and girls in Afghanistan

Delivering humanitarian aid as quickly as possible is “our first and most urgent priority in Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson said.

But until aid flows restart in earnest and the economy improves, Sakina and millions like her will struggle through a harsh Afghan winter, and some will die.

Asked what she would do once Nisar was released from the hospital and they returned home, she became distraught.

“How would I not worry? You know, I do worry. This is how life is for us right now,” said Sakina, trying to hide her face even more behind her shawl as she choked up and wiped away tears. 

“No option, what can we do? We have to accept it the way it is.”

Kelly Cobiella, Ahmed Mengli and Yuka Tachibana reported from Maidan Shahr. Petra Cahill and Bill O'Reilly reported from London.

If you’d like to help, there are several organizations doing work in Afghanistan.