In the gray light of each cold dawn, the parents of 10-month-old Shoaib hold their own breath as they listen for the rasp of his, waiting to see whether their coughing, feverish little boy has survived another night.
Winter’s chill has settled over the Afghan capital, and with it, privation is sharpening, especially among the city’s poor. Nighttime temperatures regularly fall into the teens, or even lower. The season’s first snow is on the ground, the open sewage ditches are crusted over with ice, and in shantytowns such as the one where Shoaib’s family lives, survival turns on a series of cruelly simple calculations.
“If I buy food, I can’t afford to buy firewood. And if I buy firewood, I can’t buy food,” said Shoaib’s father, Faida Mohammed, a 40-year-old laborer who lives with his family of 12 in a two-room lean-to alongside one of Kabul’s busier traffic circles. “If we eat lunch, we won’t have dinner. If we eat dinner, there’s nothing for breakfast in the morning. All the time, you have to choose.”
Seasonal hardship is nothing new for Afghans, but a combination of factors is making this winter harder than usual to bear. The number of refugees from other parts of the country, known as internally displaced people, has ballooned to an estimated half a million. Many end up in the capital after fleeing fighting elsewhere, and make their homes in slum encampments that authorities euphemistically call “settlements.”
Parwan Du, where Shoaib’s family lives, began as a few tents on an open lot, some using crumbling mud-brick walls as supports for flimsy shelters made of plastic sheeting and plywood. Now it is home to about 230 people, some of whom have been there for years.
With the city’s population thought to have tripled to about 4 million during this decade of war, the few services on offer are stretched thin. Electricity falters; potholed streets grow more impassable as newly fallen snow turns to icy slush and then to clinging mud before the cycle begins again. Prices of staples such as cooking oil have lately jumped, driven up in part by a Pakistani border blockade, imposed after U.S. airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
As people forage for fuel, the city’s few trees are stealthily denuded of low-hanging boughs. On a recent day, few looked twice at a ragged man dragging a scavenged branch three times his height along a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, its dead leaves swirling under the wheels of passing cars. Smoke from wood and coal fires used by most households for heating veils the capital in an acrid brown haze.
In a city where much of public life takes place outdoors, the cold gives many passersby a hunched, pinched look, especially as the early dusk falls. Customers linger in corner bakeries, seeking the ovens’ warmth. Outdoor vendors and beggars gather around smoky trash fires in metal barrels. Feral dogs forage for scraps, thrusting their snouts through a dusting of snow.
Afghanistan’s Meteorological Authority says this winter has not produced historical lows, but is forecast to be colder than the preceding few. During Taliban times, the agency’s records for most of the last century were destroyed, because the fundamentalist Islamic group regarded meteorology as a form of sorcery.
With the falling temperatures, winter aid has become more crucial. Late last month, the United Nations refugee agency handed out blankets, plastic sheeting, warm clothes and fuel to about 300 families in Deh Sabz, an impoverished district of Kabul. But the demand far outstrips the supply, aid workers say.
“The ones we are helping are the most desperate we can find,” said Mohammad Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “There are many, many others who are also suffering.”
Despite billions of dollars in international assistance over the last decade, urban poverty is becoming more entrenched across Afghanistan, aid workers say. The U.N. World Food Program, which normally expends most of its efforts in the countryside, recently launched a food voucher system in Kabul, giving nearly 19,000 poor families about $25 a month for basic supplies.
Rural families, with close extended clan ties and the ability to engage in subsistence farming, sometimes fare better than their cousins in the city.
“At home, in our village, we would all help each other if we were hungry or cold,” said Faida Mohammed, the father in Parwan Du. “But here, if I go to my relatives or close friends to ask for a little firewood, they are very quiet, and then they say, ‘Brother, I have nothing to give you.’”
The unending quest to keep warm sometimes yields deadly results. Officials from Kabul’s overstretched fire department say 95% of the emergency calls involve house fires, often the result of faulty wiring or blankets hung as insulation too close to an open flame.
In many poor homes, the only source of heat is a brazier-type stove called a sandali, often used with a quilt strung on a wooden frame that traps its meager warmth, but also potentially deadly charcoal fumes. Even in more affluent households, the concrete-slab construction that is a legacy of the Soviet era carries a deep, persistent chill, and central heating is a rarity.
Col. Yar Mohammed, the deputy Kabul fire chief, said leaky canisters of natural gas, used for heating and cooking, pose a particular hazard. In one home, he recalled, a recent gas explosion that killed several family members was so powerful that panicky neighbors called police to report that the house next door had been hit by a rocket.
“With all the people who die in the war, it is terrible to see more die in preventable accidents like this,” he said.
But most wintertime deaths involve a quieter slipping away. In Parwan Du, where sickness stalks nearly every flimsy shelter, Shoaib’s parents were filled with dread when a neighbor’s baby died in the night a week earlier. The children run about barefoot, sometimes napping in the weak winter sunlight if the previous night’s cold made it too hard to sleep. The only food in the house was a plastic bag filled with stale bread, begged from a nearby restaurant.
“We hope that the government will help us someday,” said the family’s matriarch, Faida Mohammed’s 60-year-old widowed mother, Zeliha. “But these days, we think our only help will come from God.”