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In Kabul, a new ritual: Hungry women wait for bread outside bakeries

In the late afternoons in Kabul, a familiar ritual takes place as Afghans head to bakeries to buy fresh flat loaves for dinner.

But since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last August, another ritual has emerged: Women in blue burqas settle in front of the city's upscale bakeries, silently waiting for charitable passersby to purchase bread for them.

They include Khadija, a mother of nine young daughters. Every day, she walks with swollen feet and blackened toenails to this bakery from the distant hilltop slum where she has lived all her life. Then she waits in her tattered burqa, endlessly stitched and mended.

"My daughters cry from hunger," says Khadija, who like other women interviewed, requests only her first name be used for the shame she feels begging. She guesses her age at about 30.

The sight of the women reflects how sharply the country's economy has unraveled, and how its people's resilience has been depleted by multiple crises. They have been battered by conflict, pandemic closures, three droughts and an earthquake over the past five years.

After the Taliban came to power, Western governments cut off the aid that propped up the Afghan government. Washington froze Afghanistan's central bank assets. The banking system largely seized up, preventing traders from easily importing or exporting goods. The number of Afghans needing food aid roughly doubled to 20 million people, about half the population. These are people who have gone into unsustainable debt or have sold off assets like land and homes, their kidneys and in the most extreme cases, their children to purchase food. In one remote province, the U.N. found some 20,000 Afghans who were starving in famine-like conditions. Officials say it has only been wide-scale food aid that has prevented more from the same fate.

Yet even for humanitarian workers who were anticipating a crisis after the Taliban takeover, the speed at which Afghans descended into extreme hunger was still surprising, says Hsiao-Wei Lee, deputy director for the World Food Program in Afghanistan. "It really comes from the fact that there is a lot of reliance on the international community's presence here and on just the general economy," Lee says. "The people of Afghanistan really need continued support."

But the international community hasn't stepped up enough, experts say. The U.N.'s appeal for this year — $4.4 billion — is only one-third funded. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is diverting resources and has caused food prices to rise.

When Khadija arrives, there's already a crowd of women waiting for bread in front of the bakery, and so the women have spilled over onto the pavement across the road. The women flock to upscale bakeries in Kabul's city center because their customers are more likely to buy them bread: one or two large flat loaves can be bought for the equivalent of 2 cents. Some pull out tattered clothes to mend while they wait.

Khadija says she often walks back home in the twilight empty-handed. On those evenings, she says, "I knock on the neighbors' doors to ask for spare food. I ask the Taliban at the checkpoints if they have dry bread," she says.

Fahima, 23, began begging for bread after the Taliban's policies made her family destitute. When the Taliban banned girls' secondary education, her mother lost her job as a cleaner at a girls' school. Her father was killed years ago.

Now, Fahima says, her life involves walking for hours from her hilltop slum, waiting outside a bakery and walking home with sore legs. It's hard, painful and boring. "I tell myself, 'What will we eat if I don't do this?'" Fahima says. "My mother is too old to walk this far. My sisters are too ashamed to beg."

It is not just the bakeries where signs of hunger are apparent.

In Kabul's Indira Gandhi hospital, the children's malnutrition ward has tripled to three rooms, with seven to nine children in each. In one room, Leila sat on the sticky floor with her 8-month-old boy, Ali Mohammad. Like the other children here on a recent day, her son had a small head, big eyes, a wrinkled face and stick-like arms and legs.

Leila said she did not know her age, explaining she could not read or write. "Maybe I'm 20, 30 or 40," she shrugged. But there was a date she could remember: two months ago, she says, when her breast milk dried up.

Her family had no money for infant formula. She said they had always been poor. Her husband, a day laborer in the southern province of Uruzgan, had fallen ill and hadn't been able to work for months. So she gave Ali Mohammad tea instead, and soon, "he was shriveling up," she says. "It is the poverty that is killing him."

Leila said her neighbors could not offer any help. They urged her to go to the hospital instead, where she would be given free food for the baby. Once she leaves the hospital, she will have no means to improve Ali Mohammad's diet. Although she fears her baby will die, "he will drink tea again."

A spokesman for the Taliban's ministry of public health, Dr. Javeid Hazheeri, says the Taliban did not expect so many Afghans would be malnourished when they seized power. The U.S. Congress alone appropriated about $138 billion since 2002 on reconstruction in the country. Experts say, however, that not enough international aid funded the kinds of development that address hunger, such as improved access to water and nutrition education for women.

Hazheeri lists the ways the ministry is trying to help, including operating more than 2,300 malnutrition clinics. But he says it's not enough, given the scale of the problem.

He says ultimately, to curb malnutrition, the Taliban government needs the economy to function, which would mean halting Western sanctions: Afghan central bank assets should be released. Afghan banks should be able to conduct cross-border trade. But those are political decisions, which would require the international community to recognize, in some way, the Taliban government. That proposition is complicated by the group's violations of human rights, including denying girls the right to attend secondary school, and issuing rules to enforce the veil in public.

While most of those in need of food after the takeover were already poor, the economic crisis has sucked in Afghanistan's middle class as well. At a food distribution center run by the World Food Program, Taliban gunmen try keep order as a crowd waits outside. Inside, women register for a month's worth of flour, cooking oil and beans.

They include a 57-year-old woman with a shiny handbag and tidy shoes, also named Khadija — a common name in Afghanistan. Her family used to live off the pension her husband received as a retired school teacher.

After the Taliban came to power the pension stopped. One son dropped out of college because the family could no longer afford tuition. She supports another son because his salary as a teacher was cut dramatically after the takeover. She sold her apartment to keep them all going, but that money is running out. "I have never opened my hands to ask for charity in my life," she says. "It felt so hard to ask."

Outside, men with wheelbarrows wait in a row, hoping those receiving food aid will need help to cart it away. They get a 2-cent tip for the work.

One of the men, Mohammad Hussein, guesses he's about 60 years old. He's tied a piece of cloth around his waist to keep his pants up. "We carry other people's food but we are hungry," he says. "Nobody gives us food." Other men surround us and echo him: "Nobody gives us food. Help us."

They're unlikely to get help. Lee, from the World Food Program, says they don't have the money to expand their aid program. She says they're trying to plan for the winter, when even more Afghans are expected to go hungry.

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