Aid workers race to save millions of lives in Afghanistan's frozen landscape

PUL-E-ALAM (AP), Afghanistan -- Gulnaz barely sees her son, 18 months old, beneath an icy blanket, as she struggles to survive on a cold road leading to Kabul.

Aid workers race to save millions of lives in Afghanistan's frozen landscape

The snow-covered hills are a feature of the 70-kilometer (45 mile) stretch of highway. Sometimes, a driver will slow down and drop a Afghani note in the hand of a 28-year old woman. The woman sits on the median of the highway for hours, just above a bump that slows traffic.

Khalida, her 16-year-old brother, is also nearby. They are both covered in blue burqas. Gulnaz, who only gave one name, said that they could make 300 Afghanis ($2.85) by the end of the day. It is usually less.

The August election of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan drove out billions of dollars of international aid and sent an already poor nation, devastated by drought, war and floods, spiraling towards a humanitarian disaster.

In recent weeks, it has been the bitter winter cold which is ravaging the most vulnerable. International aid organizations are scrambling to save millions of people from freezing or starving because they don't have enough fuel or food. The only way to heat the most vulnerable is with the wood or coal they find on the streets, or from aid groups.

Shelley Thakral spokeswoman for World Food Program Afghanistan. She stated that "the extent of the problem now is Afghanistan for people it dire." We call this a race against the clock. We must reach families in difficult and hard-to-reach areas. It's winter, and it's cold.

It is impossible to imagine the cost of humanitarian efforts. Thakral stated that the WFP will require $2.6 billion alone this year.

"Break that number. This is $220 million per month. That's 30c per person per day. And that's what we want. . . . She said that we need the money to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

The United Nations launched its largest single-country appeal for $5 billion earlier this month to aid a devastated Afghanistan.

According to estimates, 90 percent of Afghanistan’s 38 million inhabitants are dependent on aid. The U.N. states that nearly 3 million Afghans are living in displacement, having been forced from their homes due to drought, war, and famine.

700,000 Afghans were displaced in 2020. Many of them lived in dire conditions in the suburbs of cities, in parks, or in open spaces where they could build shelters.

Gulnaz immigrated from Kunduz in the north to Logar province. Her husband was a shoemaker. As she sat beside her sister at the side of the highway connecting Logar's capital, Pul-e-Alam with Kabul, she explained that his work was ruined by war and the arrival of the Taliban.

She said, "We don't have heat at home so we just come to sit here every day, raining or not."

Pul-e-Alam is a place where temperatures can plummet to minus-16 Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit) in January and February. Thousands of people line up in bitter cold to receive a World Food Program ration containing flour, oil and lentils.

WFP conducted a survey of the city to identify the most vulnerable and gave each one a voucher to receive their rations. Word quickly spread through the streets and snow-and-mud-covered streets about the distribution of food. Soon, scores of people pushed for food and pleaded for it. Some in the crowd got into fights and security forces attempted to separate those who didn't have vouchers.

Hussain Andisha who oversees distribution said that WFP distributed rations each day to 500 families for a week. He said that most people in Logar are in desperate need of food.

He spoke as four burqa-clad women slipped past men who were at the gate to take vouchers. They pleaded for food, though none had ration cards. Sadarat, a woman who identified herself only as Sadarat, claimed that her husband was a drug addict. This is a serious problem that has exploded in recent decades. According to the U.N., Afghanistan produces more than 4,000 tons of opium annually. The raw material that is used to make heroin.

"I don’t know where he’s at the moment. I don't have enough food for my kids. She pleaded for food.

As hundreds of thousands of Afghans, Sadarat and her five kids were driven by poverty and conflict from their Logar province's Charkh area to the capital, 38 km (24 miles).

Riza Gul, another woman, screamed from behind Sadarat. She said that she had 10 children and that her husband earns less than $1 per day as a laborer when he can find work.

"What are we supposed to do?" She pleaded, "Where can we go?"

Andisha stated that the January distribution would provide staples for 2,250 families in Pul-e-Alam (the capital of approximately 23,000 people). Already, the WFP has completed a survey of seven districts in Logar province and started distribution in four. The roads are covered in snow, making it difficult for hundreds of trucks to move the food.

Andisha stated that the need is urgent and only gets worse each day.

"Even since the first day that we arrived here, the condition has gotten worse." He said that people have no jobs and that women who worked before the Taliban came to power "now can't work in government departments."

He stated, "It is certain that the situation will worsen."

Andisha said that the Taliban administration in Logar had not interfered with WFP aid work and provided security at distribution points.

Thakral, a WFP spokesperson, stated that donor contributions go directly towards the people. This is despite the fact that aid organizations and international communities struggle to deal with one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world without directly dealing with the Taliban rulers.

She stated that people always come first in humanitarian crises. "We operate independently from the defacto government, so any donation will be given directly towards the people."

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