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Thursday, September 23, 2021

A million Afghan children could die in ‘Most perilous hour,’ UN warns

The deepening humanitarian crisis tops a dizzying array of challenges confronting the new Taliban regime as it navigates governing a country propped up for decades by aid from international donors.

By: New York Times |
September 14, 2021 11:52:26 am
Houses in a poorer neighborhood of Kabul Afghanistan on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Millions of Afghans could run out of food before the arrival of winter and 1 million children are at risk of starvation and death if their immediate needs are not met, top United Nations officials warned Monday, putting the country’s plight into stark relief.

Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at a high-level UN conference in Geneva convened to address the crisis, said that since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last month, the nation’s poverty rate has soared; basic public services have neared collapse; and, in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless after being forced to flee fighting.

“After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour,” Guterres said, adding that 1 in 3 Afghans do not know where they will get their next meal.

The deepening humanitarian crisis tops a dizzying array of challenges confronting the new Taliban regime as it navigates governing a country propped up for decades by aid from international donors.

Speaking to the news media Monday afternoon, Guterres said more than $1 billion in aid pledges had been made at the meeting by the international community, which is still grappling with how to work with an organization like the Taliban, with a history of brutality and human rights abuses.

Across the country, the telltale signs of a humanitarian crisis have grown more and more pronounced each day. In Wardak province, less than an hour’s drive west of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, the Taliban’s military campaign brought the local economy to a standstill this summer. Weeks after the Taliban seized power, most cross-border trade and many local businesses have yet to reopen — leaving many without any income even as food prices soar.

“There is security now; we are happy about that,” said Zakaria, a villager in Wardak province’s Chak district and a former Taliban fighter who was serving a 16-year sentence in Pul-e-Charkhi Prison in Kabul when the Taliban seized power and freed inmates. “But there is no work; the people are not able to make any money,” he added.

Vendors at Mandai market in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

The price of flour doubled at the local market, Zakaria said. Villagers stopped cooking chicken and other meat — now a luxury — in favor of less expensive meals of beans and rice. Many started eating less, uncertain how they will pay for their next meal.

Even as widespread malnutrition looms, the hospitals that once treated people for starvation now face potential collapse. At a hospital in Chak-e Wardak, administrators have been unable to pay salaries or purchase new medicines with banks still closed, according to Faridullah, the facility’s resident doctor.

“Most of our medicine, facilities and livelihood are provided by foreign countries,” Faridullah said. “We have no shortages in the hospital now, but our own facilities and personnel depend on funds coming from abroad, and we can’t access them.”

On Monday, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, promised $64 million in new funding for food and medical aid.

The prospect of humanitarian catastrophe long looming over the nation now poses an immediate threat to its children.

“Nearly 10 million girls and boys depend on humanitarian assistance just to survive,” Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of UNICEF, said at the conference. “At least 1 million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment.”

Even before the Taliban swept across the country and took control of the government, Afghanistan was confronting a dire food crisis as drought enveloped the nation.

The World Food Program estimates that 40% of crops are lost. The price of wheat has gone up by 25%, and the aid agency’s own food stock is expected to run out by the end of September.

The suffering wrought by conflict and made worse by climate change has been compounded by the uncertainty that has accompanied the Taliban’s ascent, with many international aid workers having fled the country out of safety concerns. Those who remain are unsure if they will be able to continue their work.

Women begging for alms outside a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan.
(Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

During the conference Monday, the UN said it needed $606 million in emergency funding to address the immediate crisis, while acknowledging that money alone will not be enough. The organization has pressed the Taliban to provide assurances that aid workers can go about their business safely. By the end of the gathering, international pledges had surpassed the amount requested.

But even as the Taliban sought to make that pledge, the UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, also speaking in Geneva, said Afghanistan was in a “new and perilous phase” since the militant Islamist group seized power.

“In contradiction to assurances that the Taliban would uphold women’s rights, over the past three weeks, women have instead been progressively excluded from the public sphere,” she said, a warning that the Taliban would need to use more than words to demonstrate their commitment to aid workers’ safety.

Monday’s conference was also intended to drive home the enormity of the crisis and offer some reassurance to Western governments that were hesitant to provide assistance that could legitimize the authority of a Taliban government that includes leaders identified by the U.N. as international terrorists with links to al-Qaida.

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s director of humanitarian and emergency relief operations, visited Kabul last week and said Taliban authorities had promised to facilitate the delivery of aid.

“We assure you that we will remove previous and current impediments in front of your assistance and all related projects working under supervision of U.N. and other international organizations in Afghanistan,” the Taliban said in verbal and later written commitments that Griffiths read out to the conference. The Taliban also promised to protect the life and property of humanitarian workers and safeguard their compounds. On Sunday, Taliban authorities sent assurances that they would facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries by road, he added.

Despite the risks, UN relief organizations are still working in the country and are among the last few international lifelines remaining for hundreds of thousands in need.

Since coming to power, the Taliban have been largely isolated — both politically and economically — from the rest of the world.

The World Bank halted funding for new projects, the International Monetary Fund suspended payments to Afghanistan, and the Biden administration has frozen the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank that are held in the United States.

While China has made friendly overtures to the Taliban and offered some $30 million in assistance, that is a fraction of the aid the country was slated to receive before the Taliban takeover.

At a gathering in November 2020, donor nations committed some $12 billion in assistance to Afghanistan over four years.

While the Taliban did not have a representative in Geneva for the meeting, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s deputy information and culture minister, said the government welcomed all humanitarian efforts by any nation, including the United States.

He also acknowledged that not even the Taliban expected to be in control of the country so quickly.

“It was a surprise for us how the former administration abandoned the government,” he said. “We were not fully prepared for that and are still trying to figure things out to manage the crisis and try to help people in any way possible.”

Most banks in the country remain closed, and Mujahid said there were no immediate plans to reopen them, citing the risk that people would storm them.

He called on the United States to unfreeze the Afghan government’s funds.

For hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting, their needs are immediate and growing more acute by the day.

More than half a million Afghans were driven from their homes by fighting and insecurity this year, bringing the total number of people displaced within the country to 3.5 million, Filippo Grandi, the UN refugee chief, said.

The danger of economic collapse raised the possibility of stoking an outflow of refugees to neighboring countries.

Said, 33, lived in Kunduz before fleeing to Kabul, where he now lives in a tent in a park. He has been there with his wife and three children for a month.

“It’s cold here; we have no food, no shelter; and we can’t find a job in this city,” he said, adding that he had not received any aid. “We all have children, and they need food and shelter, and it’s not easy to live here.”

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