Afghanistan's first snowfall brings hunger and misery

The country is facing an economic and food crisis that has left many with nothing to eat this winter

Every evening, like clockwork, Afghan police officer Ihsanullah Nawabi, 32, would stop to buy sheets of hot bread from the local bakers to take home to his family to eat with dinner.

“I was not making a lot of money, but I was happy – I could bring food to my children and family,” he tells The National.

“But for the last four months, we have been starving.”

Mr Nawabi lost his police job when the Taliban took control of the country in August, plunging Afghanistan into a severe political and economic crisis.

His savings were quickly exhausted without an income as the price of essentials soared.

Since the summer, Mr Nawabi’s previously middle-class family has been pushed below the poverty line.

“I tried to do manual labour or construction work, but there is no work. I even sold my motorcycle and anything else I could find, but they barely made enough to pay a part of the rent,” he says.

Mr Nawabi is not alone.

Millions of Afghans face one of the “worst crises on record” with nearly 98 per cent of the country not having enough to eat, Save the Children reported.

In happier times, the first snow of the season would have been a welcome sight for Afghans.

Known as Kabul’s “white gold”, snow is eulogised in poems as a symbol of prosperity.

Even during times of conflict, it signalled an unspoken ceasefire with fighting groups pausing battles during the country’s harsh winter.

But on Wednesday, as Kabul was blanketed under its first layer of snow this year, a sobbing Mr Nawabi broke down in desperation.

“Winter has arrived, and I am struggling to feed or care for my family,” he says.

For many this year, the snow will simply bring more misery.

“We have nothing to burn [as fuel] to stay warm. My eight-year-old daughter has been collecting rubbish from the neighbourhood so we can burn that to stay warm, but there are times we can’t even find litter,” Mr Nawabi says.

“There is a basement in our house, and we all try to sleep there because it is warmer than the rest of the house. But most nights, we sleep hungry and in extremely cold rooms.”

With the country largely dependent on aid, the Afghan economy was hit hard by the Taliban takeover as the value of the currency steadily declined.

Western governments were hesitant about continuing support for the insurgent group-turned-government and froze assistance and aid.

Meanwhile, the Taliban control has forced many businesses to shut down, reducing investment and creating widespread unemployment.

It is harder for households led by women, who face additional restrictions from the extremist group.

“We divide each meal that we get into as many parts as we can, so we have something to eat later,” university professor Mina Amin, 50, tells The National.

Ms Amin, not her real name, is trying to support her sisters and their parents.

“I haven’t been paid for four months. I have been borrowing money from people, but no one is willing or able to lend any more. I am struggling to feed my sisters or my parents,” she says.

Charity organisations in Afghanistan are working overtime to try to help those in need.

“The challenges people face are universal – people need food, medicine and a warm place, which we are trying to provide,” says Assad Zamir, former Afghan agriculture minister and founder of the Zamir Foundation, which is distributing food packages.

“We have supported nearly 1,000 families since August and are hoping to expand to reach at least 2,000 more this month,” he says.

However, Mr Zamir admits that the provisions are only a temporary solution to a much larger problem.

“Food packages usually last for a couple of weeks to a month. What people need is peace of mind and stability through employment and steady income,” he says. Mr Zamir urges humanitarian organisations to shift their focus to getting the local economy moving.

The economic and food crisis, Mr Zamir says, has had a huge impact on human dignity.

Ms Amin agrees.

“I worked so hard to get where I was. I studied hard to equip myself with better knowledge so I can serve my country. I was so passionate about educating the young generation of this country, but everything has vanished overnight. Now I am locked up in my own house, dependent on charity,” she says.

“I feel so vulnerable and angry.”

She says that even when they receive money from well-wishers, they are unable to afford the basic necessities.

“Just before the fall [to the Taliban], a kilo of cooking gas was 50 Afs [$0.06] but today it is 100 Afs [$0.96]. A bag of flour was 1,600 Afs but now it is 3,600 Afs and it is more than double,” she says.

“Some days we just eat bread and if we are lucky, we have it with sweet tea.”

For Mr Nawabi, even the bread is a luxury.

He still visits the bakery like clockwork every day, but he can no longer afford even a single slice that, for many Afghans, has become a meal in itself.

Instead, he sits outside the shop with open arms, hoping someone charitable will give him some of their bread.

“I spend hours outside the bakery with the hope that someone will buy me a naan. But most days, I return home empty handed,” he says.

Updated: December 17th 2021, 5:33 PM