Harsh Winter Has Afghans Struggling For Survival

Coal sellers gather around a small fire on a cold day in Kabul. The poor spend their days scrounging to buy a few chunks of coal or firewood, and their nights huddled under common blankets around braziers, called sandali, praying for dawn to come.
Coal sellers gather around a small fire on a cold day in Kabul. The poor spend their days scrounging to buy a few chunks of coal or firewood, and their nights huddled under common blankets around braziers, called sandali, praying for dawn to come. (Pam Constable - The Washington Post)

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 22, 2007

KABUL -- It was well below freezing in Raza Khan's tiny concrete apartment late one recent night. Half a dozen children huddled under blankets on the floor, coughing in their sleep. The fire in the rusty stove had faded to ashes, and there was no more wood to stoke it. Sometime before dawn, Khan's 3-month-old granddaughter, breathing raggedly from pneumonia, grew still and died.

"There are 18 of us, and we only have three blankets. It is not enough," said Khan, a gray-bearded man of 75 who earns about $2 a day pulling handcart loads in city streets. The baby had been treated at a city hospital and sent home, but she was not strong enough to recover. "It was just too cold," the old man said.

Winter across Afghanistan is a season of majestic beauty, with distant snowcapped mountains rising in all directions, icicles forming on orchard branches and midday sunlight sparkling on iced-over irrigation streams that meander across a thousand fields.

But in the capital, it is a season of unrelenting harshness for tens of thousands of poor families, focused on the struggle to survive. People spend their days scrounging to buy a few chunks of coal or firewood, and their nights huddled under common blankets around braziers called sandali, praying for dawn to come.

More than five years after the U.S.-led overthrow of Islamic Taliban rule and the advent of an internationally backed civilian government, the country is still so destitute and undeveloped that most inhabitants have no central heating, electricity or running water. Even in Kabul, some desperate families remain beyond the reach of foreign aid agencies that provide cold-weather assistance such as free coal and blankets in impoverished rural provinces.

Winter is the time that most starkly sets apart Kabul's nouveau riche from its permanent poor. The cozy, generator-heated homes and winking shop lights of central neighborhoods such as Wazir Akbar Khan and Shar-i-Nau, home to Afghan officials and international agency employees, seem far removed from the pitch-dark alleys and frigid rented rooms of suburban slums such as Chelsitoon and Char Qala.

Worst off are thousands of former refugees such as Khan and his family, unskilled people who returned to Kabul after years of wartime exile in Pakistan. Unable to find stable jobs or shelter, they survive on the margins of a chaotic, crowded capital that has quadrupled in population since the U.S.-led invasion. Some live in tents on vacant lots or squeeze into alleys, squatting on narrow bits of frozen land.

"All my children are sick. When I cook dinner, the room becomes a little warm and I put them under a blanket. But it gets cold soon, and they wake up and start crying," said Roya, 25, a laundress with four children who lives in a single cavelike room with patched tent cloth forming a flimsy fence around her tiny front yard outside.

Two winters ago, the Afghan Ministry of Migration offered to move several hundred refugee families from their tents into empty, rent-free apartment buildings on the southern outskirts of Kabul. Roya said she refused to move, because the location was too far from affluent homes where she can walk to wash and iron clothes. The customers also give her food, and earlier this month her tiny room was hung with strings of drying beef, special donations distributed to the poor during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Khan and many of his neighbors took up the government's offer and moved to Teknikom, a five-story concrete college dormitory built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and later abandoned. Today it is home to about 3,000 people, but in many ways it is still a ghost building.

The corridors are windy and dark, with blankets hung across open doorways and plastic taped over gaping windows. Small children, many of them barefoot, play in the halls. The original heating and plumbing systems have not worked in years, so older boys collect sacks of scrap paper and donkey dung to use as fuel.

"This is worse than the tents," said Yar Mahmad, 25, an unemployed driver whose ailing 10-month-old son also died of cold this month. Neighbors had each lent him $2 for medicine for the boy and then helped bury him, lighting a fire to warm their hands while they dug in the frozen ground. "Now I owe $400, and I lost my son, too," Mahmad said glumly.

No one knows exactly how cold it gets here, because there is no national weather service. Afghan television stations report the local weather based on forecasts by faraway foreign meteorologists, conveyed via the Internet. But aid workers said the temperature had recently dipped to 5 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

Even for residents with slightly better incomes than Mahmad's, a Kabul winter such as this one, which struck earlier than usual, brings hardships unimaginable in the West. The city's overloaded, war-damaged power system is still near collapse despite extensive repairs since 2001. Homes typically receive electricity only a few hours every other night, assuming that they're wired at all. Water must be heated in buckets, and bathing can be an excruciating ordeal.

Because much of the capital's commercial life takes place outdoors, in sidewalk stalls and workshops, winter weather shuts down much of the economy. Only a few kinds of business thrive in the cold weather: the used-clothing sellers who hang sweaters and jackets from roadside fences, and the coal and wood sellers who chop and stack their wares on frozen lots.

Rabbani, an elderly man who sells firewood in the Old City district, waits for customers by the stove in his toasty plywood hut, keeping an eye on a mountain of chopped logs. Often poor families send their sons to buy a few kilograms of wood at a time, and Rabbani sometimes adds a couple of sticks to the meager pile on his ancient scale.

"I think I am the only happy man in Kabul, because when it gets cold, everyone comes to me," he said. "It is so hard for people. They ask for three kilos, and I know it will only burn for an hour. If they earn $2 a day, they have to choose between buying bread and wood."

Cold-related deaths usually come one or two at a time, but occasionally poverty and bad weather conspire to produce large numbers in one place. Last month, 80 women and children perished in central Logar province when they were trapped in several remote hillside villages after a heavy snowfall.

Afghan and international aid officials said they began planning last summer to help people in the most vulnerable regions get through the coldest months. The U.N. World Food Program, working with the Ministry of Rural Development, trucked 21,000 tons of donated oil, wheat, lentils and salt to warehouses in more than a dozen provinces.

Nevertheless, they said, the deliveries were delayed by bad security and red tape at the Pakistani border. On top of that, winter arrived early, making it hard for trucks to reach some remote spots. In some cases, officials resorted to airdropping supplies by helicopter.

"This year has been very challenging, with millions of people at risk, but we have avoided a crisis," said Ebadullah Ebadi, a spokesman for the World Food Program here. "In some provinces with heavy snows, the roads are cut off for three to four months. Because of the drought, places that used to be breadbaskets are now asking us for food."

One wealthy private philanthropist, Ehsan Bayat, has also been delivering emergency food and supplies to families in many parts of the country. He sends fleets of private trucks to needy regions and then personally flies there in Afghan army helicopters to inspect and distribute the supplies.

Bayat, an Afghan American entrepreneur who owns one of two major cellphone companies and a private TV station in Kabul, has also been taking winter supplies to needy families in the capital. Residents at the Teknikom building said that he had brought them a load of blankets and coal but that what they really needed were permanent homes.

"There is nothing here for us: no jobs, no land. In the summer we can work as laborers, but in the winter all we do is wait in the cold," said Nader Mohammed, 38, the unofficial leader of the Teknikom families. "We thought we would be welcomed home when we left Pakistan. Now we just sit here by the stove, asking ourselves why we came back."


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