Charlotte Bellis: 23 million Afghans face starvation – where is the world?


Afghans are paying a heavy price for a stalemate between Western powers and an emboldened Taliban, writes Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis.

In Kabul, you can gauge the desperation of people by the number of men on the road with a wheelbarrow. These people, called karachiwans, transport your groceries or other goods. It’s a last-resort job. When everything else has dried up, you become a karachiwan. In good times, you can earn a couple of dollars a day. But now is not a good time.

Last week, my partner, Jim Huylebroek, and I went for a walk around our neighbourhood. It was bitterly cold and the temperature wasn’t forecast to climb above freezing for another few days. We walked gingerly over the thick black ice coating Kabul’s footpaths, and through the choking smoke wafting out of kebab shops, before we crossed paths with a karachiwan.

He was an elderly man layered in worn coats. He stared at us from the middle of the road with his wheelbarrow and shouted for money. We hadn’t brought any on our walk and could only reply that we had none on us. And with that, he cried. A man of my father’s age, gripping the handles of an empty wheelbarrow, sobbing. This is what Afghanistan has come to.

Jim has lived in Kabul for seven years. He is a photographer, mostly for The New York Times. I have been visiting for four years, reporting for Al Jazeera. We have covered the war and the poverty and the corruption that is endemic here. The war is now over, but the Afghans’ suffering is not.

The US has frozen Afghanistan’s central bank reserves and imposed sanctions. More than 70 per cent of the previous government’s budget came from other countries – that’s now gone. It is a punch aimed at the Taliban, but it has landed a knockout blow on the Afghan people.

The few foreign reporters who remain here borrow facts and adjectives from press releases to impress on their readers the scale of the fallout. They count the months it has been since girls went to high school and the days since a female activist was last seen. It’s “catastrophic”, “horrific”, a “crisis”, they write. Each story includes the latest figures, such as how 23 million people are on the verge of starvation – that’s more than four times the population of New Zealand facing death because they cannot afford to buy food. There’s a sense of helplessness.

The US may continue its policies regardless, given the political tightrope it is walking at home, and the closeness of its midterm elections. Meanwhile, the Taliban carries on, too proud, stubborn and emboldened to make concessions that would satisfy Western demands. There is very limited tolerance for anyone who questions its authority. Whether it’s protesting women, journalists asking too many questions, or people using fake documents to flee the country, there are harsh consequences for dissent.

As foreign journalists, we try to amplify Afghan voices and mirror their reality into your homes. We can only hope it resonates with voters and policymakers.

As foreigners, we all straddle a canyon of guilt, knowing our fates are different from regular Afghans simply because of our passports. I’m all too aware I can return to a New Zealand hospital to give birth where I’m about 70 times more likely to survive than my Afghan friends.

The people of Afghanistan are left pondering the injustice of their generational suffering; article after article is published and still, where is the world?

Possible solutions are left to emanate from the mosques of Kandahar and hallways of Washington. If only we could transport those decision-makers to that harsh January evening to meet that karachiwan with his wheelbarrow.

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