Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Afghanistan’s Freezing Temperatures Could Mean Trouble After the Thaw

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By John Wendle

The mud walled hut in which four-month-old Khair Mohammad froze to death was covered by an emergency aid tarp sagging under the weight of the snow that was also blanketing similar dwellings throughout the internally displaced persons camp in Kabul. The snow fell in heavy, wet flakes and stuck to the bare heads and thin shoulders of the camp’s children – many wearing only shirts and rubber flip-flops. The children were running to collect blankets and clothes haphazardly dropped off by a disorganized jumble of foreign aid agencies, Afghan NGOs and businessmen and sympathetic foreigners reacting to the news that around two dozen children had frozen to death in the past month in camps around Kabul.

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“Maybe tonight everything will be okay or maybe more children will die. It’s the same thing, day in, day out,” says Sayed Mohammad, Khair’s father, struggling with frozen hands to secure a tent rope to a stake outside his dirt-floored house. “Sometimes we have food. Sometimes there is no food. Sometimes we don’t have any heat. Sometimes it’s snowing. We have no control. If we have one thing, then we don’t have another,” Sayed tells TIME. “We have no choice. Some days we have no dinner and we just sit and look at each others faces,” says Sayed.

“When it snows, I get tears in my eyes thinking about how many more dead there will be,” says Julie Bara, a water, sanitation and hygiene program coordinator for Solidarités International, a French group that has been working at the camps in Kabul. “The future for these children is the most uncertain.”

Khair died late last week, making him the 17th child to freeze to death in the Nasaji Bagrami IDP camp in just 30 days. Though numbers remain vague because of deaths left unrecorded by families and officials, Kargar Nuragli, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Health, told TIME that at least 24 children had died from the unusual cold snap and snow that has hit Kabul in the past month. But Khair’s death is only the latest tragedy to befall Sayed Mohammad’s family. “We moved to this camp because of the war. Two of my children died in Helmand province and my father and brother were killed there. We had to. We didn’t come here out of luxury,” Sayed tells TIME.

Indeed, Kabul is a fragile bubble of safety and relative economic prosperity – along with other large Afghan cities like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar – in comparison to an impoverished countryside ravaged by a decade-long war, or to an unstable existence in Pakistan or Iran as a refugee. And the plight of these refugees will not get better when it gets warmer – and there are other, larger problems that the problems in the camps only highlight.

Over more than ten years of war these bubbles have seen their populations of IDPs and returnee refugees ebb and flow with the violence in the surrounding countryside. The numbers tell the story – one that is not giving Afghan government officials any sleep at night. The IDP and refugee population in Kabul increased by just a little more than 5 percent in 2009, by 10 percent in 2010 and by more than 23 percent in 2011 – an exponential explosion that has put a human face on a UN report released last week saying that civilian casualties had risen for the fifth consecutive year in Afghan conflict.

“The IDP population has been increasing exponentially since 2009. Just looking at the math, there could be a greater than 35 percent increase for 2012, taking the population to around 40,000,” says Bara. Right now there are 43 “informal settlements” around Kabul, totaling between 20,000 and 30,000 people according to two different censuses. And there are another 5,000 around the city limits.

And though recent media coverage of the wave of deaths of children under age five has spurred an increase in the amount of aid – organized or not – the government does not seem to have a solid, long-term plan to take care of “the poorest of the poor.” What is more, the Afghan government fears that aid will only draw a wave of impoverished farmers to the relative safety of Kabul – a fear founded on the experience of other humanitarian crises around the world.

“The government is afraid,” Dr. Mohammad Diam Kakar, director general of the Disaster Assistance Agency, tells TIME. “Abdul Karim Khalili, second vice president and director of the National Disaster Management Committee said at a meeting a few days ago that if we cannot find a solution and the IDPs will not go home, then, with the help they have received recently – which has been broadcast all over the world by the media – maybe we will receive more IDPs,” Dr. Kakar says.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees says that with international support, the government will provide people with land in any province and a two-room house. But where the money and land would come from – a sorely contested issue in a country with few documented land titles – is unclear. But the people at the camps know the score if they leave the bubbles of security and relative abundance of social services. “I went to the camps yesterday and they said they don’t want to leave Kabul for any place,” says Dr. Kakar. “They told me, ‘we will not receive the support we are getting now from the government, the NGOs and the president if we go home. We will stay here,’” he tells TIME.

But even the support the people get is not enough. “Their future of these children will not be any different from how we live now. There are no schools. There are no clinics. They will be illiterate. They will be uneducated. They will have the same condition as us,” says Wali Khan, an elder from Helmand who moved to the camp three years ago. And, observers agree, such a situation creates an opportunity for radical elements to gain a foothold in an already aggravated population – the exact situation that led to the rise of the Taliban during this country’s civil war.

For their part, the Taliban made the point on a Twitter post that the recent deaths are, “a sample of things which happen in areas ruled by ISAF.” A spokesman for the group, Zabiullah Mujahed, says that, “if we come back into the power we will definitely have systems and programs to take care of people in any season,” adding that, “We will take care of the needs of people very honestly without cheating or lying. We will not do as the current government is doing.” But again, without having the infrastructure to collect taxes, the claims of both the government and the Taliban seem flimsy.

Back at the whitewashed mud walled mosque a group of men huddled inside, their breath fogging the air. Most were visibly shivering. The Pashtuns are incredibly hospitable to guests and they apologized repeatedly for not offering a seat and a cup of tea, since the floor was only covered in a thin plastic prayer mat and there was no tea and no wood to make a fire. Shivering children stared in the door.

Standing in a huddle of shawls and turbans flecked in snow, the men told story after story of heartbreak, sorrow and death. Finally, a camp leader, Wakhil Mohammad Ibrahim, had had enough of the talk and issued a frustrated ultimatum to Afghan President Hamid Karzai – a challenge that illuminates the precarious knife-edge Afghanistan straddles just a few years from a international military withdrawal – a withdrawal that could be accompanied by an exodus of aid agencies.

“Under the Taliban we always got help. But now, we are here in Kabul and we are getting aid and we are getting help from a lot of countries and this son-of-a-bitch Karzai doesn’t even care about us,” Ibrahim says. “This is my message, this is my warning to Karzai: if you recognize us as Afghans, give us any job. We will do anything for our country, just provide us with the same condition the Taliban did when we were in Kandahar. If not, this country is yours. We will go to Pakistan, we will go to Iran and we will forget you.”

A version of this story ran at,8599,2106906,00.html at


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