A child stands in a frozen yard outside her family's mud hut in Kabul on Jan. 24. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

A child’s plastic sandal and a stack of dirty dishes are frozen fast in a muddy yard. Icicles drip from a torn tarpaulin that serves as a bedroom roof. Families huddle around a charcoal brazier that will die long before the night ends. A chained dog and a flock of mud-caked chickens tremble with cold. 

This is what life looks like in dozens of human encampments scattered across the Afghan capital this winter — all of them precarious perches for tens of thousands of people displaced by conflict in one way or another. 

Some of the camps have formal names, signs and boundaries; others are invisible and unregulated warrens of mud-walled sheds, wedged among urban alleys or clustered in vacant lots. Some of the occupants have arrived in the past few months; others have been stuck in these temporary settlements for years. 

Those who have been officially designated as repatriated refugees or internally displaced persons are entitled to one-time cash payments and handouts of certain basic supplies. Others have never registered with any Afghan or international agency, leaving them to survive on their wits, odd jobs and the tenuous charity of destitute neighbors. 

“Nobody comes to help us. We just live day-to-day,” said Bai Mahmud, 38, whose family returned from a refugee camp in Pakistan 10 years ago. With no home or property to reclaim after 25 years away, they ended up living with 30 other families in a row of dark, frigid huts, hidden in an alley. None of the children are in school, and many are sick. None of the adults are literate. A few of the men work pulling carts, cleaning streets or making wooden birdcages, but none of them have a steady or skilled job.

Three children from a family of former war refugees stand near the tents where they now live in Kabul. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

“We keep thinking we could be forced to leave anytime, but still we are stuck here,” said Mahmud, standing in his open doorway as snow fell from the slate-gray sky.

In addition to this long-term, semi-nomadic populace, a massive surge of new returnees and domestic war refugees has descended on the capital, many ending up in similar circumstances. Last year alone, between 600,000 and 700,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan, pressured to leave by authorities there and promised assistance by Afghan officials. Many families arrived in rented cargo trucks heaped with their belongings. 

At the same time, an estimated 600,000 civilians displaced by fighting between Taliban insurgents and government forces­ in scattered parts of Afghanistan, especially Kunduz, Nangahar and Helmand provinces, also have sought the relative safety of the capital. When warm weather returns in April, U.N. and Afghan officials said, a surge of new arrivals will begin. 

“We are talking about at least 1.2 million people on the move. They get some blankets and food, pots and pans, tent materials — enough for the first few months. But what happens after that?” said Dominic Parker, head of office for the U.N. humanitarian coordinating agency in Kabul. Last month, the agency issued an international appeal for $550 million to help an estimated 5.7 million “vulnerable and marginalized” Afghans in the coming months. 

U.N. officials said they expect that 9.3 million Afghans, or nearly a third of the country’s population, will need some form of humanitarian or emergency aid this year, a 13 percent increase over 2016. They said the rise reflects an “unprecedented number” of people fleeing domestic conflict and an “unexpected influx” of those returning from Pakistan, as well as a greater focus on people in “protracted displacement” who live in “semi-permanent crisis.”

Many Afghans who fled recent fighting are still in shock at their abrupt change in circumstances and are struggling to adjust to the indignities of camp life. Malalai, a widow of 55 who uses a single name, escaped Taliban-besieged Kunduz three months ago with her two sons and daughter-in-law. The family ended up surrounded by strangers in a colony of half-ruined mud huts. Recently, a freezing rain had turned the compound into shin-deep muck, but Malalai’s newlywed son Ahmed, 19, was still trying to keep his leather shoes clean.

“This was our safest haven, but there is nothing here,” said Ahmed, who abandoned his plans to study English and has been cleaning a shop for $2 a day. The family patched up their new abode with donated sheets of plastic, and his mother and wife spend most of their time huddled under blankets around a brazier. “If Kunduz was secure, we would leave for there in one hour,” he said.

In other informal settlements, such as a dense maze of mud houses in the impoverished Karte Naw district where many returnees from Pakistan rent tiny pieces of land for about $15 per month, a close-knit community spirit has developed. Families help each other in emergencies, keep an eye on the swarms of camp children and fashion doors from flattened tins of cooking oil to guard their mud-walled enclosures.

Last month, one refugee couple in the Kote Sangi district took their infant son to a hospital, coughing and wheezing. He was treated and sent home. His mother said that she put him under a blanket near the coal brazier but that the heat lasted only a few hours. At 9 p.m., the child died. The neighbors, many of them distantly related, collected $150 for a coffin, and the men dug a small grave in a frozen piece of city ground. 

“We don’t have much, but we are like a village,” said Shirin Naga, 35, a tailor and unofficial spokesman for one encampment. Naga can read and write, and his living room, brightened with colorful hand-sewn drapes, serves as a community parlor. Despite the hardships, he said, “it is still better to be back in our homeland, where the police don’t bother us and no one can make us leave.”

The major disappointment for returned Afghans is the government’s failure to follow through on its promise to provide each family with a piece of land on which to build a new life. The land-distribution program created by former president Hamid Karzai became bogged down by corruption, disputes over land titles, resistance from local residents and other problems. According to a report by the nonprofit Afghanistan Analysts Network, only about 1,000 parcels have been allocated. 

Last year, President Ashraf Ghani encouraged all refugees to return from Pakistan and renewed vows to help them. But Afghan officials are the first to admit that they are severely limited in their capacity to assist and keep track of the returnees, especially those who never registered in Pakistan. They also did not expect the separate flood of people displaced by conflict to keep pouring into the crowded capital, where there is no public housing and utilities are stretched thin.

“We are lucky that Pakistan stopped sending people for the winter,” said Rohullah Hashimi, an official in the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. “Before, we were getting 6,000 to 7,000 undocumented people arriving every day. Now it is only about 300 to 400.” The government’s assistance budget for them is only about $165 million, he said. “We are trying to do our best. They are not facing catastrophe, but they have many difficulties. And in the spring, it will all start again.”

Among the U.N. agencies and their local partners who provide the lion’s share of aid to both returnees and war-displaced Afghans, there is a growing realization that they cannot be arbitrarily distinguished from the long-term returnees who have remained at the desperate margins of the urban economy. Officials at the World Food Program, which provides most emergency food and supplies, said they are expanding their programs to include the earlier arrivals, too.

Last month at a half-dozen informal settlements across the capital, residents provided evidence of this extra effort. Tucked in many corners, among the jumbles of damp bedding, battered tin trunks and piles of mud-caked shoes, was a single, carefully protected sack of imported flour — a sign that somewhere, in an office whose name they did not know, someone at least knew they existed.