Afghanistan's anguish: Humanitarian crisis looms in wake of Taliban takeover

Many Afghans say Taliban rule has led to better security, now that the bloody insurgency is over. But Afghanistan faces a humanitarian catastrophe, and the struggle to survive deepens every day.

UN says 97% of Afghans could be living in poverty in 2022

Afghanistan is seeing a rise in child malnourishment cases that some blame directly on the withdrawal of foreign aid after the Taliban victory in August. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

The searing cries of malnourished infants echo through the halls of a busy children's hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city.

The babies writhe in their beds in obvious discomfort as tubes for the IV drips that feed them protrude from their fragile hands. The glazed eyes of the smallest child, fed through a line into her nose, roll back at times as she fights to stay alive. 

Meanwhile, their mothers keep watch, the toll of their babies' suffering — and their own powerlessness to stop it — etched across their faces.

"I can't provide enough food for my children," said Nasima, a 37-year-old mother whose own hunger leaves her unable to produce enough breast milk. There's no way her family can afford formula. 

"I hope someone will help me," she said.

But in Afghanistan, holding onto hope can be impossible. 

A baby peers out from a gate surrounding a camp for displaced people in Kabul. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

Outside these walls, Taliban fighters toting AK-47s patrol the entrance to the hospital compound. It's a metaphor for the country's perilous state. Many say Taliban rule means better security, now that the bloody insurgency is over. 

But Afghanistan faces a humanitarian catastrophe, and the struggle to survive deepens every day. 

"I have to do something for them," Nasima said of her children. "But I don't know what to do." 

'We are so far from a good life'

Troubling signs of the mounting crisis are everywhere across Kabul as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of economic collapse. 

Angry crowds jostle outside banks across the city — the ones that haven't yet run out of money, anyway. Many workers are not being paid at all. Those who can access cash are only allowed to take out the equivalent of $200 US a week under Taliban-imposed limits on bank withdrawals.

Afghanistan is facing a rising level of hunger, with 95 per cent of households going without enough to eat, according to the UN's World Food Program. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

Others now sell household possessions along a dirt path on the side of a busy road — a flea market of despair — as families try to make whatever money they can. Any items they can live without are put on display for others to buy. 

"I want to sell this stuff because at home I don't have any food," said a man named Hamidullah, pushing a wheelbarrow full of carpets. "Then maybe I can buy some."

Not far away, hundreds of families who fled their homes during the Taliban advance over the summer now live under plastic sheets and small tents in a squalid camp in the centre of the city — row after row of makeshift structures filled with people who have nowhere else to go. 

Children — who make up 50 per cent of internally displaced people in Afghanistan — play barefoot in the dirt while their parents ponder an uncertain future. 

"Until Afghanistan rebuilds, we are under threat," one mother at the camp lamented. "We are so far from a good life." 

Compounding the anxiety of Afghan daily life is the growing unease over ISIS-K, the terrorist group behind the August attack at the Kabul airport that killed 200 people, as well as a suicide bombing earlier this week that targeted a funeral for a Taliban official's mother. 

WATCH | A closer look at Afghanistan's food crisis:

Hunger stalks Afghanistan as food crisis worsens

10 months ago
Duration 1:05
The World Food Program is urging Canada to extend 'the hand of help' to Afghanistan after war and a change of government pushed Afghans deeper into poverty.

'A lottery of birth' 

Plagued by decades of war, Afghanistan's anguish is long entrenched, but it's being accelerated now with the suspension of much of the foreign aid that's been the country's lifeblood. 

The World Bank, which administers the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, halted payments after the Taliban victory in mid-August, while the U.S. froze $11.3 billion of Afghan reserves to keep the money out of the hands of the country's hard-line rulers. 

The policies, designed to constrain the Taliban, are hurting the Afghan people the most, said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Program's Afghanistan country director. 

More than 500,000 Afghans have been displaced this year alone. Fifty per cent of the country's displaced people are children. This girl is living with her family in a makeshift camp in central Kabul. (Ellen Mauro)

"The people of Afghanistan, they are innocent," she said, surrounded by hundreds of hungry citizens anxiously waiting for rations at a Kabul food distribution point. 

"Their lives have been upended through no fault of their own, just by a lottery of birth and a lottery of geopolitics." Addressing Western nations, she said, "Do not condemn children to hunger in Afghanistan." 

But that's the fate facing so many Afghans already. Ninety-five per cent of households don't have enough to eat, according to the WFP, and two million children are malnourished. The United Nations predicts 97 per cent of Afghans could be living in poverty by 2022. 

"I've never seen a situation deteriorate so quickly," McGroarty said. "It was already bad before August, but now it's just in free fall."

'I've never seen a situation deteriorate so quickly,' says Mary-Ellen McGroarty, country director for WFP in Afghanistan, of the decline in living conditions over the past two months. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

It's a sentiment echoed by Dr. Nourulhaq Yousafzai, director of Kabul's Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital, where those malnourished children are being treated. Yousafzai attributes the rise in malnutrition cases — and a resurgence of cholera — to the withdrawal of aid. 

"The international community should help us like before," he said. "They can choose another way to punish the government but… the existing punishment is for the people, for the children."

Nearly 90 per cent of Afghanistan's health facilities have been forced to close due to the lack of international aid. If the system crashes completely — a real risk — thousands of children under the age of five could die each month, warns Save The Children. 

So far, the Taliban have been unable to convince foreign donors to restart their aid programs, and as long as Afghan women's rights remain in peril — older girls are still blocked from going to school across most of the country — it's unlikely the situation will change. 

All the while, tens of millions across Afghanistan suffer, and any hope for stability in the country wanes. 

PHOTOS | Life under the Taliban (again):

Trying to stave off crisis

At a WFP food distribution centre on the outskirts of Kabul, hundreds lined up in the blazing heat this week to pick up a month's worth of flour, beans and cooking oil. The price of basic staples has been rising — cooking oil now costs twice as much as it did last year. 

Men and women, including the elderly, lined up separately. Scuffles broke out at the front of the queue, as the desperation for food grows. 

Women show their registration cards to pick up beans, flour and cooking oil at a food distribution centre operated by the World Food Program on the outskirts of Kabul. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

So does the fear that the few NGOs still operating in the country may not have the support they need to help, especially as Afghanistan's harsh winter looms. 

"The desperation, it's terrible to witness it," said McGroarty, who implored countries to put politics aside and focus on Afghanistan's crushing need. 

"We are trying our best to stave off a real crisis, but we need to be doing much, much more."

A woman rests while waiting for food at the WFP distribution centre in Kabul. Hundreds lined up in the blazing heat to pick up flour, beans and cooking oil. (Jared Thomas/CBC)


Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto, covering stories in Canada and beyond, including recent deployments to Haiti and Afghanistan. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she worked at CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered major international news stories across Europe and Africa.