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Kabul’s poor face a cold, harsh winter

This news story was published on January 10, 2012.
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By Laura King, Los Angeles Times –

KABUL, Afghanistan — In the gray light of each cold dawn, the parents of 10-month-old Shoaib hold their own breath as they listen for the rasp of his, waiting to see whether their coughing, feverish little boy has survived another night.

Winter’s chill has settled over the Afghan capital, and with it, privation is sharpening, especially among the city’s poor. Nighttime temperatures regularly fall into the teens, or even lower. The season’s first snow is on the ground, the open sewage ditches are crusted over with ice, and in shantytowns such as the one where Shoaib’s family lives, survival turns on a series of cruelly simple calculations.

“If I buy food, I can’t afford to buy firewood. And if I buy firewood, I can’t buy food,” said Shoaib’s father, Faida Mohammed, a 40-year-old laborer who lives with his family of 12 in a two-room lean-to alongside one of Kabul’s busier traffic circles. “If we eat lunch, we won’t have dinner. If we eat dinner, there’s nothing for breakfast in the morning. All the time, you have to choose.”

Seasonal hardship is nothing new for Afghans, but a combination of factors is making this winter harder than usual to bear. The number of refugees from other parts of the country, known as internally displaced people, has ballooned to an estimated half a million. Many end up in the capital after fleeing fighting elsewhere, and make their homes in slum encampments that authorities euphemistically call “settlements.”

Parwan Du, where Shoaib’s family lives, began as a few tents on an open lot, some using crumbling mud-brick walls as supports for flimsy shelters made of plastic sheeting and plywood. Now it is home to about 230 people, some of whom have been there for years.

With the city’s population thought to have tripled to about 4 million during this decade of war, the few services on offer are stretched thin. Electricity falters; potholed streets grow more impassable as newly fallen snow turns to icy slush and then to clinging mud before the cycle begins again. Prices of staples such as cooking oil have lately jumped, driven up in part by a Pakistani border blockade, imposed after U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

As people forage for fuel, the city’s few trees are stealthily denuded of low-hanging boughs. On a recent day, few looked twice at a ragged man dragging a scavenged branch three times his height along a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, its dead leaves swirling under the wheels of passing cars. Smoke from wood and coal fires used by most households for heating veils the capital in an acrid brown haze.

In a city where much of public life takes place outdoors, the cold gives many passers-by a hunched, pinched look, especially as the early dusk falls. Customers linger in corner bakeries, seeking the ovens’ warmth. Outdoor vendors and beggars gather around smoky trash fires in metal barrels. Feral dogs forage for scraps, thrusting their snouts through a dusting of snow.

Afghanistan’s Meteorological Authority says this winter has not produced historic lows, but is forecast to be colder than the preceding few. During Taliban times, the agency’s records for most of the last century were destroyed, because the fundamentalist Islamic group regarded meteorology as a form of sorcery.

With the falling temperatures, winter aid has become more crucial. Late last month, the United Nations refugee agency handed out blankets, plastic sheeting, warm clothes and fuel to about 300 families in Deh Sabz, an impoverished district of Kabul. But the demand far outstrips the supply, aid workers say.

“The ones we are helping are the most desperate we can find,” said Mohammad Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “There are many, many others who are also suffering.”

Despite billions of dollars in international assistance over the last decade, urban poverty is becoming more entrenched across Afghanistan, aid workers say. The U.N. World Food Program, which normally expends most of its efforts in the countryside, recently launched a food voucher system in Kabul, giving nearly 19,000 poor families about $25 a month for basic supplies.

Rural families, with close extended clan ties and the ability to engage in subsistence farming, sometimes fare better than their cousins in the city.

“At home, in our village, we would all help each other if we were hungry or cold,” said Faida Mohammed, the father in Parwan Du. “But here, if I go to my relatives or close friends to ask for a little firewood, they are very quiet, and then they say, ‘Brother, I have nothing to give you.’ ”

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