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U.N. Estimates Many In Afghanistan Are Suffering From Hunger

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As the U.S. draws down forces from Afghanistan, it is leaving behind a desperately poor country, and it's been made even poorer by this pandemic. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of all Afghans are food insecure and going hungry. The situation for children under 5 is dire. Almost half are chronically malnourished and need nutritional support. NPR's Diaa Hadid has more from Kabul.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Shaista is tricking her eight children. They're home, and she's boiling a pot of water on their wood-burning stove. But she's told them she's cooking dinner.

SHAISTA: (Through interpreter) I tell them, wait for your father - he's coming. Then they fall asleep. I cry at night thinking of how I can't feed them.

HADID: Shaista says she's only got God to turn to.

SHAISTA: (Through interpreter) God is kind. Maybe he will find a way for us.

HADID: Life has always been hard, but this year was the hardest. Shaista's husband was injured in an accident. Her oldest son, 15, began selling firewood. But there weren't many customers because the pandemic hit and Kabul shut down for weeks in the spring.

SHAISTA: (Through interpreter) Corona made everything worse.

MELANIE GALVIN: COVID has actually really accelerated a very difficult situation to begin with.

HADID: Melanie Galvin is the chief of nutrition in Afghanistan for UNICEF.

GALVIN: We have a huge number of children that are wasted. It's synonymous with starvation.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: Some end up at the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul. Outside, women in burqas clutch their swaddled babies as they wait to see a doctor. Inside, there's a department just for malnourished kids who've developed other complications.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

HADID: Haji Rizva is here with her granddaughter. Parvana's 18 months old. She keeps vomiting. But she's too weak to move on her cot, so the vomit dribbles down her neck and into her tattered tracksuit.

HAJI RIZVA: (Through interpreter) We didn't have enough to feed her. Sometimes we only have tea for two or three days. We don't even have bread.

HADID: Haji Rizva says money's scarce because her sons can't find work. To get to hospital, she had to borrow $8 for the taxi. That's a huge sum. Scenes like this are jarring considering how much the U.S. spent on the war in Afghanistan - some $2 trillion, according to one study. Most of that spending was military related, but billions were shelled out on development. So why are Afghans starving?

HEATHER BARR: It's a million-dollar question, isn't it? Actually, it's a many-million-dollar question.

HADID: Heather Barr is from Human Rights Watch. She says for years, corruption sapped funds. Diplomats kept rotating in and out. They and the aid workers who were supposed to oversee the assistance largely stayed in their compounds for security reasons.

BARR: The cumulative effect of all that is - it's pretty disastrous, you know? We have a country which has still got some of the worst development indicators in the world, after an extraordinary amount of money being spent.

HADID: Barr and aid workers say things have gotten more organized, although the international community is donating less. With the funding it does expect to get, UNICEF believes it will be able to treat a third of the children who need urgent help. This is Heather Barr again.

BARR: The international community is largely done with Afghanistan.

HADID: And that includes America.

BARR: There's just no realistic expectation that the U.S. is going to remain interested in Afghanistan, ready to continue bankrolling Afghanistan's deeply financially dependent government.

HADID: Already, kids like Parvana, who are lucky enough to be treated, face an uncertain future.

RIZVA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Her grandmother says, when they go back home, Parvana will eat what the family eats. Often, that's nothing at all.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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