Famine in Afghanistan: Families sell their daughters and a mother sells her kidney to feed her children
- Yogita Lemaya
- BBC News – Herat
Some Afghans give their hungry children tranquilizers to put them to sleep, others sell their daughters and human organs to survive.
In the second winter since the Taliban took power and with foreign funds to Afghanistan still frozen, millions are on the brink of starvation.
Abdel Wahhab said: “Our children cry and cannot sleep and we have nothing to feed them, so we buy some pills from the pharmacy that make them sleepy so that their eyes go to sleep.”
Abdul Wahab lives outside of Herat, the country’s third largest city, in a cluster of thousands of small mud houses that have proliferated over the decades and are now overcrowded with displaced people whose homes have been destroyed by wars and natural disasters.
Abdel Wahab, one of a group of about ten men who had gathered around us. We asked them: How many people give their children narcotics?
They replied, “Many of us, but all of us.”
A young boy pulled from his pocket an envelope containing pills, the sedative alprazolam, which is usually prescribed by doctors to treat anxiety disorders.
Ghulam, who has six children, said he even gives these pills to his little son, who is only one year old.
Others showed us escitalopram and sertraline strips, which are commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety, and which they said they would give to their children.
Doctors say these drugs, when given to malnourished young children, can cause liver damage, along with a host of other problems like chronic fatigue and sleep and behavioral problems.
At a local pharmacy, we found that you could buy five pills of used medication for ten afghanis (about 10 US cents) or the price of a loaf of bread.
Most of the families we interviewed shared a few pieces of bread each day.
One of the women told us that they ate dry bread in the morning and dipped it in water at night to moisten and soften it.
The United Nations said a humanitarian “disaster” was now unfolding in Afghanistan.
The majority of men in the area outside Herat are day laborers and have lived difficult lives for years.
But when the Taliban took power last August without international recognition from the new de facto government, foreign money flowing into Afghanistan froze, leading to an economic meltdown that left men out of work most days.
And on the few days they might find a chance to work, they only make about $1 a day.
Everywhere we went we found people forced to take fateful steps to save their families from starvation.
Ammar (not his real name) said he had surgery three months ago to remove his kidney and showed us the scars from his surgery where his abdomen had been cut 9 inches long.
He’s a little boy in his twenties whose identity we’ve kept secret to protect him.
“There was no way out,” he told us, “I heard that a kidney could be sold at a local hospital, so I went there and told them I wanted to sell my kidney. A few weeks later, I got a call asking that I go to the hospital.”
“They did some medical tests, then they drugged me and I passed out. I was afraid, but I had no other choice.”
Ammar received $3,100 for his kidney, most of which went to pay back money he borrowed to buy food for his family.
He said: “If we have food one night it may not be available the next day and after selling my kidney I feel like half a man and I feel hopeless. If life goes on like this, I feel like I could die. “
The sale of organs for money is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
This happened before the Taliban took control. But now, even with such a scary trade, people still can’t find a way to survive.
In a cold, unfurnished house, we meet a young mother who says she sold her kidney seven months ago.
They had to pay back the loan they took out to buy a flock of sheep, but they all died during a flood that hit the area a few years ago, and the family lost their income and livelihood.
The $2,700 they got from selling the kidney wasn’t enough to pay off the debt: “Now we’re forced to sell our two-year-old daughter too, the debt they asked us about our daughter,” she said.
Her husband said, “I am ashamed and embarrassed about our situation. Sometimes I feel that death is better than such a life.”
We’ve heard many times here that people sell their daughters.
“I sold my five-year-old daughter for 100,000 afghanis — just over $1,000,” Nizamuddin said. “That’s less than half the price of a kidney we found locally.
The man bit his lip, burning and with tears in his eyes, the people here have lost their dignity from hunger.
“We know it is against Islamic law and that we are endangering the lives of our children, but there is no other alternative,” said Abdul Ghaffar, one of the neighborhood leaders.
In one of the houses we entered, we met four-year-old Nazia, who was small and playful, changing her facial features to make her look funny while playing with her 18-month-old brother, Shamsullah.
“We don’t have any money to buy groceries, so I announced at a local mosque that I want to sell my daughter,” her father Hasretullah said.
Nazia was sold to marry a boy from a family living in the southern province of Kandahar.
The girl will be sent to her new family when she is 14, and so far Hasretullah has received two payments of the agreed amount.
“I spent most of the money buying groceries and medicine for my youngest son. Look at him, he’s malnourished,” says the man, while lifting the shirt off his son Shamsullah’s stomach to show his swollen abdomen .
The appallingly high rates of malnutrition are evidence that hunger in Afghanistan is affecting children under the age of five.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has seen an increase in the number of people visiting their malnutrition treatment facilities across the country. The increase this year is 47 percent compared to the previous year.
MSF’s Nutrition Center in Herat is the only well-resourced malnutrition treatment facility, serving not only Herat but also the neighboring provinces of Ghor and Badghis, where malnutrition rates have risen by 55 percent in the past year.
Since last year, the center has increased the number of beds to accommodate the number of sick children who need to be admitted to the center. However, the facility is always overcrowded with patients.
The center often has to treat children for more than one illness.
Omid, 14 months old, is malnourished, has a hernia and blood poisoning. And it only weighs 4 kg. Doctors have told us that a normal child at this age weighs at least 6.6 kg.
His mother, Amna, had to borrow money to pay for her trip to the hospital when Omid started throwing up profusely.
We asked Hamidullah Mutawakkil, spokesman for the Taliban provincial government in Herat, what they are doing to combat the hunger crisis.
He replied: “The situation has been exacerbated by international sanctions against Afghanistan and as a result of the Afghan asset freeze. Our government is trying to count the number of those in need as many lie about their living conditions because they think they can get help.”
Mutawakel stood firm despite being told that we had seen overwhelming evidence of how dire the situation was.
He also said the Taliban are trying to create jobs, adding: “We look forward to opening iron ore mines and a gas pipeline project.”
It is unlikely that this will happen anytime soon.
People told us they felt abandoned and neglected by the Taliban government and the international community.
Hunger is a slow and silent killer, and its effects are not always immediately apparent.
The true extent of this crisis may never be seen because the world is not being blamed and nobody is expecting it.
Participate in the reporting: Imogen Anderson and Malik Mudasir
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