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Afghanistan: one year on — starvation, women in hiding and children married off to pay for food

 (Evening Standard composite)
(Evening Standard composite)

My dream is the same as every girl,” high school student Samira*, 21, tells me from a blue cushion in her family’s small, darkened living room in Kabul. “All I think of is studying and being successful. To be in a position where I think: ‘Yes, this is what I want with my life.’”

Samira should be in year 12, with university almost within reach. Instead, she is stuck indoors with her cousin Robina, 15, looking at old books, helping to clean the house and praying for things to get better. They hardly venture out for fear of harassment by the Taliban. Indeed, our clandestine interview has all been the work of a male family friend, who made me wait inside a corner shop before hurrying me through a warren of alleys to reach their courtyard.

“I’m sad. It’s obvious I’m sad. We can’t go to school,” says Samira. Robina, who should be in year 11, echoes her sentiment with a little more fire. “I have bad feelings now. I’m afraid. I don’t even go to the local shops. I’m angry!”

It’s been a year to the day since the Taliban seized control of their home city, forcing them indoors. The militant Islamist group swept into power in the capital Kabul following the withdrawal of US and western forces with such ease and speed that even its own leaders were surprised.

Afghan girls hold illegal protest to demand the right to education in a private home in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP)
Afghan girls hold illegal protest to demand the right to education in a private home in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP)

After a 20-year western mission to save Afghanistan from a repeat of the Taliban rule of the Nineties, the capital’s capture was rapid. “I was scared” says Samira, wringing her hands as she recalls the fall of Kabul on August 15 last year. “We’d heard what [the Taliban] were like 20 years ago.”

Samira was right to be scared. In that moment, life changed not only for a generation of women, but for an entire country. The Taliban banned girls from attending high school, required women to cover their faces and prevented them from venturing outside without a Mahram (a person who you are not allowed to marry), or male relative. Robina and Sabina’s dreams of becoming a doctor and a journalist were crushed. I was in Kabul at the time as a reporter and the atmosphere of trepidation was unmistakable.

The white flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flew from every building and the Taliban rode around in newly-acquired US military pick-up trucks brandishing shiny new weapons and eyed you suspiciously. Heroin addicts huddled in corners. Men walked freely but cautiously. Women lived in fear.

So what’s changed since that day? In some senses, very little, if my experience is anything to go by. Women and girls still shelter in their homes. The Taliban are still very much to be feared. And yet, everything has changed for Afghanistan. The economy has collapsed and the middle class has disappeared. The Taliban are nowhere near as fearsome as that of 20 years ago, but they are not recognised as a legitimate government by a single nation and so a claustrophobic environment of sanctions is strangling the country. The banking sector has fallen apart (though this is no fault of the current government), and Afghanistan has suffered its worst drought in 37 years.

Add to this the Covid-19 outbreak, global inflation and monthly price increases on household goods, it’s alarming yet hardly surprising that living standards have deteriorated. Last year, UN secretary-general António Guterres warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” and his fears are being proved right. In April this year, the World Bank released its Afghanistan Development Update report, which highlighted a $5 billion drop in revenue and grants, from $6.5 billion to $1.5 billion, and a $3.5 billion drop in foreign exchange inflows.

Men buy Taliban flags along a street in Kabul (AFP via Getty Images)
Men buy Taliban flags along a street in Kabul (AFP via Getty Images)

This worsening economic situation is forcing parents to take their children out of school and put them in to work to help feed their families — or in some cases, marry them off to help ease the burden of responsibility. Child marriage has become a coping mechanism for economic decline.

“UNICEF is hearing more reports of destitute parents being forced into heartbreaking measures to keep their families alive,” says Grace Armstrong, education in emergencies specialist for UNICEF in Afghanistan. “We do not have comprehensive national data but we’re seeing more children being forced to work; we’re hearing more reports of families exchanging daughters for a dowry to ensure the family’s survival, security, or to pay off loans; and we have heard of parents selling infant children to strangers.”

She explains that teachers would usually intervene or mediate to stop parents taking their children out of school for labour or marriage, but with no school there can be no mediation. For women and girls, the inability to access education coupled with this fear of marriage has — unsurprisingly — created an atmosphere of despair.

Last week, a report by Save The Children found that girls are bearing the biggest brunt of the Taliban takeover with them more likely than boys to be isolated, hungry and depressed. Almost half are not attending school, compared with 20 per cent of boys, and suicide rates have been increasing — 85 per cent of the 27 suicides across 11 provinces in the last two months were young men and women between the ages of 15 and 25.

Meanwhile, many more are starving. A recent report estimated that 18.9 million people — nearly half of the population — will be acutely food insecure between June and November of this year. Armstrong says she and her colleagues have seen many cases of hospitalisation due to hunger. “We’ve witnessed severe malnutrition. One girl our staff spoke to had been hospitalised nine times. Our staff are facing issues with mothers unable to breastfeed.”

Last year’s Kabul evacuation (Ministry of Defence/PA) (PA Media)
Last year’s Kabul evacuation (Ministry of Defence/PA) (PA Media)

Many families have now escaped to neighbouring countries, but fleeing doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. Across the border in Iran, high school student Fatima*, 21, had dreams of becoming a doctor. She speaks to me via WhatsApp, having crossed the border illegally with her sister and 17 other family members late last year. “Mentally I am not good,” she tells me, a year after we hid in her uncle’s pharmacy for an interview, while the Taliban idled past in armoured US trucks. She was afraid of the Taliban then, of them beating or teasing her and her sister, but at least she could leave the house.

“In Afghanistan at least I could move around, but in Iran I can’t move or go out without a government ID. I can’t go to university.” Fatima’s uncle, Shafiq*, says the family were forced to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban discovered that his father was in the Afghan army. Reports of revenge killings quickly spread, and the Taliban came knocking on their door. “We couldn’t live in fear anymore,” he tells me.

The family sold their home for half of its value and crossed the border in Nimruz province. They had to pay people smugglers 280,000 Afghanis, the equivalent of £2,580. Now the 18 family members share a two-room flat and money is provided by Shafiq’s brother, who works in a mine, and another brother who is a guard.

Back in Afghanistan, there have been some small improvements. Armstrong says factions within the Taliban have at least started working alongside her colleagues at UNICEF to create positive change in education. Karim*, 34, a pharmacist in west Kabul, points out the Taliban have changed one important thing for people: “The security situation is much better. Across the country it is better. We can travel across provinces. I’m happy about this.”

Afghan women wearing traditional burqas walk past a cemetery in Kabul (AFP via Getty Images)
Afghan women wearing traditional burqas walk past a cemetery in Kabul (AFP via Getty Images)

The Taliban is proud of this. Kabul is a safer city to wander at night than under the previous government. Men and women can walk to work or access remote healthcare without fear of drone strikes or attack. There is less theft and corruption. Under the previous government these crimes went unchecked. The Taliban’s brutal punishments have become a major deterrent.

For most Afghans, however, the negative effects of economic decline far outweigh the positive security situation. The descent into poverty began before the Taliban came to power, but it is their current policies that have exacerbated the situation. Women make up half the population and half of the workforce. All those I speak to say they to want to learn and earn money to help their country, yet they can’t. Given that many of the Taliban leaders’ own daughters are being educated abroad, the policy appears to be less of an ideological one, and more political; a bargaining chip to be used against the US and Europe in return for financial aid.

In Kabul today, the feeling of change over the last year might be is subtle. But in the wallets of the Afghan people, in the half empty classrooms and in the homes filled with despairing young women, that change feels monumental. “As long as the Taliban are in charge, nothing good will happen. It’s been a year and nothing has changed. I don’t trust the Taliban,” Samira tells me from her darkened living room. For her and most of the Afghan people, it’s hard to know what the future holds for the country, but right now it hardly looks bright.

*Names have been changed to protect identities