Just past dawn, the sky is a bitter winter gray. Lines of ragged figures huddle in a field of frozen mud, waiting for a jeep carrying bread to arrive. Children are coughing and weeping from the cold, but their presence is essential because each family member gets one loaf.
Policemen in black turbans tower over the crowd, shouting at people to keep order. Women covered with blue veils cower and plead as the policemen flail at the crowd with doubled ropes, bullying stragglers into line.
Finally the Jeep pulls up. Men missing legs hobble forward on crutches; women push their children ahead. Hands reach up to clutch the precious brown loaves and hug them for warmth. Then the families hurry home to what may be their only meal of the day.
This is what it has come to for tens of thousands of people in Kabul, as the capital faces its fourth winter under the Islamic Taliban regime and its first under international economic sanctions: a struggle against hunger, cold and sickness that has reduced daily life to a primitive routine of begging, scavenging, bargaining for a few sticks of firewood and waiting in line for bread.
No one appears to be starving, but more than 250,000 people rely on free or subsidized bread programs operated by international relief agencies. The U.N. World Food Program runs 37 low-cost bakeries, and the International Committee of the Red Cross gives away carloads of protein-rich bread at half a dozen locations each day.
"We're not seeing malnutrition like Africa, but people have to be very skilled at developing survival strategies," said Marcus Dolder, who directs the Red Cross program. "A monthly salary here is worth less than a pack of Marlboros, and nobody can live on that. So people go deep into debt, they sell their ration cards, they bribe their way onto distribution lists. They are smarter than we are, and I can't blame them."
Afghanistan's economy is at a standstill after two decades of war, first against Soviet troops and then among insurgent factions. Since the Taliban militia seized Kabul in 1996, it has poured most of its meager resources into beating back pockets of military resistance in the northern part of the country, with little left over to rebuild hospitals, roads, power plants or factories.
At the same time, the world has shunned the Taliban as an illegitimate, fundamentalist regime that has imposed a radical brand of Islamic law, denying women access to education, employment and medical care. The United States has banned trade and investment because of terrorist attacks against two of its African embassies allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi fugitive who is based here.
Last month, the United Nations followed suit with a ban on international flights to Afghanistan, and angry Afghan mobs responded by attacking U.N. facilities in six cities. The economic sanctions exempt food and medical relief, however, and aid officials say their work has not been hindered.
No reliable economic statistics have been available about Afghanistan for years, but in 1991, according to U.N. estimates, the gross national product per person was $155, one of the lowest in the world. The country is a major producer of opium, which brought in an estimated $183 million last year, but Afghanistan has few valuable legal exports and little to show for its drug income.
The United Nations, which issued an appeal for $221 million in aid to Afghanistan last month, calculates that the country's illiteracy rate is as high as 70 percent, only 35 percent of the population has access to health care and the combined death rate for infants and small children exceeds 200 per 1,000.
Now the sting of winter has added a cruel new dimension to the hardships of Kabul, a city of ruins and refugees where beggars and scavengers already outnumber the formally employed, electricity is erratic and most buildings have no heat.
At night, temperatures fall well below freezing. Families who can afford to buy a few pounds of coal huddle around braziers called sandalis or build wood fires on mud floors. Those who cannot afford fuel share blankets. Colds and lung ailments are rampant--Afghan health officials said they have already seen thousands of cases of tuberculosis this season.
In some parts of the country, especially in the rural northeast where fighting continues to rage, Afghan officials and international aid workers said conditions are even worse. The United Nations has successfully negotiated with the Taliban to carry relief supplies across the northern front lines, but the effort has been hindered by heavy snow and impassable roads.
"I feel such pity for people. We are doing what we can, but we can still only provide half the health care a normal human being needs," said Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of public health. "Our country has been destroyed, and we have been isolated by the world. If everyone keeps condemning us instead of helping us, how can we begin to rebuild?"
Not everyone in Kabul is living hand-to-mouth, however. There is still a small middle class of teachers, doctors and bureaucrats who remained behind after most of their peers fled. But many live in dank, unheated Soviet-era apartments, and most earn less than $5 a month.
At the other end of the narrow economic spectrum are the victims of unending civil war: thousands of refugees who have fled from fighting in the north, and thousands of war widows and orphans who ask for money in bazaars, hunt for twigs for fuel or peddle their services as itinerant bootblacks or incense swingers.
Ziamuddin, 12, whose father was killed three years ago, spends five hours a day knocking on doors with his incense burner, hoping someone will pay him a few cents for a ritual blessing. His six younger brothers and sisters spend all day begging; at night their pooled income amounts to about 50 cents. None has ever attended school, although Ziamuddin recently enrolled in a nonprofit training program for street children.
"I have to do this. There is no money, and we have to buy bread," the boy explained briskly. After a bowl of stew and an hour of carpentry class, it was back to work in the streets. "I would like my friends to come here," Ziamuddin said, "but their parents would shout at them to earn more money."
The bazaars of Kabul are a striking contrast in want and plenty. Street carts are piled high with carrots and cauliflower, unsold because people cannot afford the prices, while tins of Indian tea and jars of English jam grow dusty on grocery shelves. Begging women and children crowd every corner, and most shoppers say they can barely afford potatoes or rice.
In many ways, the bread lines and relief bakeries of Kabul have become the soul of the city this winter. People line up before dawn, murmuring and joking as they stamp their feet. For 5 cents, with a pink or yellow ration card, each will get five pieces of flat, snowshoe-shaped Afghan bread that costs about 30 cents in the bazaar.
The people waiting in line represent every aspect of Afghanistan's tragedy: an old man whose farm was burned to the ground last summer in fighting north of the city; a former medical student who supports his parents and children by selling potatoes; a mother of six whose husband was killed by a rocket; a boy wearing sandals and wrapped in a blanket.
"People are cold all the time," said Hazrat Mohammad, 33, a one-legged war veteran who serves bread at a World Food Program bakery. When people can buy a quart of diesel fuel, he said, "it runs out before the night is over. They have to choose between buying wood and buying bread. If there were no places like this, I would have to start begging like everyone else."
But in the bakeries, there is an air of warmth and camaraderie; a sense of sanctuary against both the bitter weather and the harsh edicts of the Taliban. Outside, police enforce rules against playing music, men appearing beardless and women failing to cover their faces and bodies with a veil. At the insistence of relief agencies, no Taliban officials may visit programs like the bakeries uninvited.
The mood is especially cheery in the "widows' bakeries" operated by the World Food Program, where teams of women sit pounding dough and baking bread in wood-fed mud ovens. Each day, they take home 40 cents and two pounds of bread. The heat is intense and the soot stings, but the women obviously love their work.
"I am happy because now I can provide for my family," said a baker named Anisa, 35. Her face was flushed and her hands reddened from slapping loaf after loaf into the oven. "Once I had a happy life. My husband was a teacher. We had land and animals. Now everything is gone. But here at least I have my friends, and my children have enough to eat."
CAPTION: Kabul residents wait for free bread at relief agency bakery. Each family member, including children, is eligible for a loaf.
CAPTION: An Afghan, with his grandson, holds a loaf of bread obtained from a ration line. Thousands depend on bread given out free by international relief groups each day .