Afghanistan is in the middle of a devastating famine, with 23 million people facing starvation. The mass hunger is caused mainly by a severe drought, made worse since the US froze Afghan assets once the Taliban took over in August. Yet unlike past humanitarian crises, the famine has attracted little attention or help from other countries still grappling with the Covid pandemic. Here a World Vision health worker in Afghanistan describes the brutal reality of what is happening in her country, as the world looks the other way. Her name has been redacted to protect her.
I haven't been sleeping very well. A few weeks ago I saw a young girl in the arms of an older man, crying uncontrollably and asking for her mother. I can't get her out of my head. I know that she had been sold by her parents to the man holding her, to get some money so that the rest of their family could survive. Since that day I've lost so many nights sleep, I cry every time I remember her.
Can you imagine having to sell your own daughter? I'm a mother too, and I cannot accept that a child has to experience anything like that, but this is what is happening here in Afghanistan now.
We are facing the worst hunger crisis we can remember. Almost half of all children in Afghanistan are at risk of acute malnutrition. Children are dying. Daughters are being sold. I have met some parents who, after selling their children, have resorted to selling their own organs too. Previously, families were finding ways to survive by skipping meals and selling their belongings but increasing poverty and food insecurity in recent months has forced some households to adopt these extreme coping strategies.
It's been a long, harsh winter in Afghanistan – we've endured severe snowfall, heavy rains following months of drought, and recently earthquakes. The winter makes some areas completely inaccessible. I work as a health specialist for World Vision - many of the places we were able to get to in the past are now covered in snow and out of reach, so we cannot provide help to people there, and I worry about them. We have been trying our hardest to reach them, and sometimes they also try to get to our clinics, but most of the time they have no way of doing so. On top of this, we often also run out of medication due to supply delays.
Every day I do all that I can to save the lives of children who come to our mobile health clinics in desperate need. Our focus is on getting life-saving food, healthcare and nutrition assistance to families. My job is to check how malnourished the children who come in are. I measure the arms of babies and children and provide them with what they need most. It is hard to try to describe what we see every day. Sometimes I can't believe my own eyes. I have never seen my people suffering like this.
Poverty is increasing, so too is the number of sick and malnourished families turning up at our clinics. Each clinic sees around 80 babies and small children and 150 adults a day. They arrive hungry and cold and suffering respiratory problems.
Most of these families have nothing. There has been such an increase in poverty, that many parents do not have money to buy food and those that do often only live off bread and water. They do not have enough clothes or heating to keep warm during the bitter winter. It's not unusual for them to burn toxic materials like plastic bags just to try to provide a little bit of warmth. Some even ask me if I have clothes for their children to wear. Without anything to keep the cold away, their already hungry children come down with pneumonia and other chronic illnesses.
They often come from very remote areas to get food and medicine for their children, but sometimes they are too late. We send those too sick to treat at our clinics to hospital, but the hospitals are so overwhelmed that they may not get help there either. Devastatingly, about 50 per cent of the severely malnourished children we see will not survive.
A few weeks ago a baby arrived at our clinic malnourished and with severe pneumonia. He could barely breathe, his tiny lungs were struggling with every breath, he was so close to dying. As we tried to treat him, I knew that it would be very hard for us to save him. We had to send him to a bigger hospital. I've never seen him again. I've been so worried ever since that he may have not made it. I doubt he did.
Every day I see such extreme suffering. It's hard to describe how it makes me feel. I can still see the faces and remember the stories of many children I've treated. My heart is broken.
When I'm faced with these thoughts, I try to think of the many lives that we have saved. The children who come to the clinic malnourished, but with the food and care we provide they become healthy again. The parents who come pleading with us to save their children's lives – which we do. Recently we looked after a woman who was giving birth to her second child. While in labour she suffered severely high blood pressure – she would have died if we had not been there to treat her. For thousands of people like her, we are the only health service they can access. We are their only hope. And we save their lives. I am so thankful that I can use my skills to help so many. I just wish somehow that I had the power to save everyone.
World Vision has been providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, but the past few months have presented challenges at a scale not seen before, and it is getting worse every day. We need to reach more people and keep saving lives. We can do that; we just need your help.
Every day, I pray to God that He can take away this suffering from my people. That we will be able to provide enough food and medicine to continue our work. That I will no longer hear the crying of hungry children, nor the wailing of grieving parents.
It is my hope that New Zealanders will help us, in this, our greatest time of need.
World Vision is working in Afghanistan and other countries around the world to provide life-saving food to children weak from hunger. You can provide life-saving food to children whose lives are on the line. Text CHILD to 5055 to donate $3, or visit www.worldvision.org.nz and help provide life-saving food now.