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Famine stalks Afghanistan

Long before the gates open, the queue for food already snakes around the block. Under the watchful gaze of patrolling Taliban guards, hundreds of people in a neighbourhood in Kabul line up to collect their month's worth of meagre rations. 
The economic collapse and hunger which followed the Taliban's takeover last summer has not spared this once prosperous, middle-class corner of the Afghan capital.

'She would die if we did not have this aid,' said a woman in the queue called Simin, pointing to her daughter Reyhana. Her husband is jobless and the couple must somehow feed six children.

Aid distributions like this have become a critical lifeline in a country where nearly 20 million are short of food. Each family gets a 50kg (110lb) sack of flour, cooking oil, beans and salt.

Yet officials warn they will soon have to cut back programmes as funding gaps bite and they have to lay in stocks for another looming winter crisis. Soaring food prices, a focus on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and international hesitancy to offer anything that may benefit the Taliban are all undercutting aid efforts. 

'18 million people urgently need food in June, but we only have money for 10 million people,' David Beasley, head of World Food Programme (WFP), warned last week. 'Fuel, food and shipping prices are skyrocketing. We're already taking food from the hungry to feed the starving.'

The UN deems the Afghanistan crisis so severe that this year it set its highest ever appeal target of GBP 3.5bn to fund a humanitarian aid plan, but less than a third of the requested money has been given.

Cuts to aid programmes mean entire food distribution sites like the one feeding Simin and Reyhana will need to close, though decisions on which ones have not yet been made.

'It's getting worse, day by day. We have lost our hope,' said Halima, a 20-year-old second year Islamic law student queuing for food.

She added that all the male members of her family who were well-educated and had good jobs under the former government were now unemployed. She left her studies because she was unable to pay tuition fees, and now makes ends meet with tailoring work.

'There's no money coming to us,' she said. 'At least this programme gives us something.'

The Taliban's shock victory following America's decision to pull out of Afghanistan tipped what was already one of the world's poorest countries into economic free fall. Overnight international aid, which had made up most of the government budget, was halted. Sanctions against Taliban leaders paralysed the financial sector and the economy went into meltdown.

Food handouts by humanitarian agencies averted the worst predictions of starvation over the harsh winter, but the situation is not improving and is 'completely unsustainable', one official said. The economy shows little sign of reviving and the West refuses to give development aid that might go into Taliban coffers.

Hsiaowei Lee, WFP's deputy director in Afghanistan, said the agency has so far fed 18 million people with 400,000 tons of food.

'This has helped avert a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,' she told the Telegraph. 'However, WFP in Afghanistan now lacks the funding to continue assisting communities at the same pace and scale.

'Even worse, WFP in Afghanistan is running out of money and at the same time we are faced with additional costs of GBP 204m (USD 256m) due to the impact of the war in Ukraine that has increased the prices for food, fuel and shipping.'

Meanwhile Unicef says its own humanitarian projects are only a third financed, and the UN's refugee agency has just half the funding it needs. 'It's really vital that the international community wake up to the situation on the ground,' a UNHCR spokesman said. The hunger some face is obvious in Kabul's Indira Gandhi children's hospital, which has been forced to set up makeshift beds in corridors to deal with extra cases. Malnutrition cases have risen with poverty, said Mohammad Iqbal, the medical director.

He believes part of the reason for the rise in admissions is that the war masked the dire need of many in the countryside, which is only now becoming apparent with the Taliban victory.

Aid and development never reached many in rural areas and fighting meant they dared not brave the roads to bring sick children to hospital. His overstretched malnutrition ward is full of skinny toddlers from provinces which were once on the front line between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

A woman called Hamida waits at the bedside of her son, Jamal Ahmad, aged four, who seems nothing more than skin and bones. She lost her husband in an air strike in Paktia province.

'We don't have any money to buy food,' she said. 'Since one year my son has been very sick and we don't have any money to treat them.'

A lack of food is hitting everyone, from the urban middle class to the rural poor.

In Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, the situation in scattered rural villages – where poverty has always been extreme – is worsening.

At a well-equipped provincial public hospital funded by the Aga Khan, around three or four severely malnourished children are admitted each day, plus another five or six who are moderately malnourished.

The caseload has nearly doubled in recent months, and mothers complain their own slim diets mean they do not have enough breast milk to nurse their babies, who then fall sick.

Khairullah Ahmadi, the hospital's clinical manager, reckons those making it to his wards are a tiny proportion of the problem. 'I know that in the villages where they live, there are many other children that are malnourished.'

This week, Qatar warned that humanitarian aid alone will not be enough to stop the country sliding deeper into chaos.

The country's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told the Financial Times that maintaining the status quo 'where the West is boycotting Afghanistan, and just focusing on part of the humanitarian activities through the international agencies' was not going to keep 'Afghanistan intact'.

In Kabul, diplomats and officials say there is deep resistance to engaging with the Taliban. America, France and Germany are particularly reluctant to give any ground to a regime which has seized power by force and is refusing to let girls attend secondary school.

'The narrative is not easy,' one aid official said. 'The Taliban are not doing anything to make our job easier in terms of politics. All of these anti-female edicts they are putting up. There's very little appetite to fund any operation that people feel benefits the Taliban.'

Adapted from an article by © Ben Farmer / Telegraph. For the full version, please get in touch.
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