Khassem is five months old and has just reached 3.54 kilos, one hundred grams more than on Friday, the date on which he entered the Malnutrition Unit of the Indira Ghandi Children’s Hospital in Kabul. Susane Sashebzada, Head of Nursing for this unit, reviews the child’s file while the mother tries to put her pajamas on, being very careful not to harm her. Their skin is yellowish and their bones are so marked that they seem to be exposed at any moment. He looks at you from the bed with big black eyes, but he doesn’t see you. It barely blinks. «This is a catastrophe, there is no other word to define it, we have never experienced a similar situation. Every day we receive dozens of
new cases, we are overwhelmed “, Sashebzada comments helplessly.
The Indira Ghandi hospital has 360 beds, but it has had to perform miracles to take in 450 patients. “Many others come and go because they don’t have money for the treatments. We do not have all the necessary medicines and the families do not have money to be able to buy them in the pharmacies, so they take the little ones back home, ”says the head of Nursing. She is physically and mentally exhausted. Afghanistan’s public hospital staff have been unpaid for two months and in the case of the Ghandi they have even lost the kitchen service, so each one must buy food at the end of the day. “If this does not change soon we will not come to work, I am desperate to get out of here because there is no future”, confesses Sashebzada.
As the Taliban continue to be blinded by military victory, banning women from playing sports or establishing a segregated system in universities, half of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance and one million children are at risk of suffer acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF alert. In the Gandhi of Kabul the statistics of this United Nations body have a face and a name. “The Taliban arrived here after taking the capital and the first thing they told us is that there is no problem for women to continue developing their work in the world of health,” he says Noorulhaq Yousufzai, director of this center for thirteen years. The interview with the director takes place in his office, with the presence of a Taliban in the room. Faced with the complaints from the staff and the extreme situation in units such as malnutrition, Yousufzai briefly replied that “there have been no changes since the arrival of the ’emirate’, here everything remains the same.”
The director is right, the humanitarian crisis in the country is not only a consequence of the Taliban victory, but the instability generated by the regime change, the massive population displacement and the economic collapse have aggravated the situation. “If the current trend continues, UNICEF predicts that one million children under the age of five will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening disease,” the organization’s regional director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei, said in a statement.
The Afghan health system, like almost everything in the civil service created after the 2001 US invasion, depends on external donations and most of this aid has been frozen since the arrival of the ’emirate’. About two-thirds of the country’s health centers are part of Sehatmandi, a three-year project of more than 500 million euros administered by the World Bank and funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the European Union, the World Bank and other international actors that since the arrival of the Taliban have chosen to suspend their aid. The system is on the brink of collapse, waiting for a saving external hand, but with each passing day the population is more and more vulnerable, especially the children.
The arrival of children is constant at the Malnutrition Unit. There are days when they have to place two little ones per bed. Families with some money can bring in Meropenem, an antibiotic used to treat severe stomach infections, from abroad, but most can only hope for a miracle. “The situation is critical. Chronic malnutrition rates of 30 percent are officially considered an emergency ”, is the balance of Mike Bonke, director for Afghanistan of the NGO Action Against Hunger (ACH), who warns that “with humanitarian aid and the financial system interrupted, an already difficult situation has worsened.”
Along with Khassem, seven other children share a room in Kabul. Nine-month-old Abasin does not stop crying in the arms of his mother, who no longer knows how to hug the little one. Three-year-old Mohamed Yousef is the oldest and watches everyone else sitting on his bed, a bag of cookies at his feet. “He needs an urgent operation, but I don’t know how we are going to pay for it,” his parents lament as they take out of an envelope the latest X-rays they have done on the little boy in which they have spent all the money they brought from Baghlan, north of the capital. It weighs six kilos.
Hunger knocks on the doors of the ’emirate’ and now it is the Taliban who must build bridges with the outside world that will allow them to maintain the aid that can save the lives of many children such as Khassem, Abasin, or Yousef. This is a war in which the old AK-47s from which they do not separate even to pray will be of no use to them.