Malnutrition: “I drug my hungry children to help them sleep”
- Yogita Lemaya
- BBC News – Herat
Some Afghans give their starving children sedatives to put them to sleep, and others sell their daughters and human organs to survive.
By the second winter since the Taliban took over, while foreign money flowing into Afghanistan is still frozen, millions are on the brink of starvation.
Abdel Wahhab said: “Our children are crying and cannot sleep, and we have no food to feed them, so we buy some sleeping pills from the pharmacy, so that their eyes fall asleep.”
Abdul Wahab lives outside Herat, the country’s third-largest city, in a cluster of thousands of small mud houses that have grown over the decades and are now filled with displaced people whose homes have been destroyed by war and natural disasters.
Abdel Wahab, one of a group of ten men gathered around us. We asked them how many people give their children drugs?
They answered, “Many of us, but all of us.”
The young man pulled out an envelope with pills from his pocket, which was the sedative alprazolam, which is usually prescribed by a doctor for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Ghulam, who has six children, said he even gives these pills to his one-year-old toddler.
Others showed us strips of escitalopram and sertraline, commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety, which they said they were giving to their children.
Doctors say that when given to malnourished young children, these drugs can cause liver damage, along with a host of other problems such as chronic fatigue and sleep and behavior disorders.
At a local pharmacy, we found that you could buy five tablets of the used medicine for ten Afghanis (about 10 US cents), or the price of a loaf of bread.
Most of the families we talked to shared a few pieces of bread every day.
One of the women told us that they ate dry bread in the morning and soaked it in water in the evening to moisten it and make it soft.
The United Nations has said that a humanitarian “catastrophe” is now unfolding in Afghanistan.
Most of the men in the area outside Herat are wage earners. They have lived a hard life for years.
But when the Taliban took power last August, without international recognition of the new de facto government, foreign money flowing into Afghanistan froze, leading to an economic collapse that put people out of work most days.
And on those few days when they could find an opportunity to work, they earn only about 1 dollar a day.
Everywhere we went, we found people forced to take fateful steps to save their families from starvation.
Ammar (not his real name) said he underwent surgery three months ago, his kidney was removed and he showed us the scars from his surgery where his stomach was cut to 9 inches.
He is a young man in his twenties, whose identity we have withheld to protect him.
“There was no way out,” he told us, “I heard that a kidney could be sold at a local hospital, so I went there and told them I wanted to sell my kidney. A few weeks later I got a phone call asking me to come to the hospital.”
“They did some medical examinations, then they drugged me and I passed out. I was scared, but I had no other choice.”
Ammar received $3,100 for his kidney, most of which went to pay off money he borrowed to buy food for his family.
He said: “If we eat some food one night, the next day it may not be available, and after selling a kidney, I feel half human and feel hopeless. If life continues like this, I feel I may die.”
Selling organs for money is not an uncommon phenomenon in Afghanistan.
This was happening even before the Taliban took control. But now, even with such a terrifying trade, people still find that they cannot find a way to survive.
In a cold, unfurnished house, we meet a young mother who says that she sold her kidney seven months ago.
They had to pay off the loan they took out to buy a flock of sheep, but they all died during the flood that hit the area a few years ago and the family was left without a source of income and livelihood.
The $2,700 they received from selling the kidney was not enough to pay off the debt. “Now we are forced to sell our two-year-old daughter as well. Those from whom we borrowed money harass us every day and instead of paying the debt, they asked us for our daughter,” she said. .
Her husband said: “I feel ashamed and embarrassed about our situation. Sometimes I feel that death is better than this life.”
We have heard many times here how people sell their daughters.
“I sold my five-year-old daughter for 100,000 Afghanis – just over $1,000,” Nizamuddin said. That’s less than half the price of a kidney, according to what we’ve found in the field.
The man bit his lips with fervor and tears in his eyes. People here have lost their dignity from hunger.
“We know it is against Islamic law and that we are endangering the lives of our children, but there is no other alternative,” said Abdul Ghaffar, one of the neighborhood dignitaries.
In one of the houses we entered, we met four-year-old Nazia, who was small and playful, changing her facial features to look funny while playing with her 18-month-old brother Shamsullah.
“We don’t have money to buy food, so I announced at the local mosque that I want to sell my daughter,” said her father Hasretullah.
Nazia was sold to marry a boy from a family living in the southern province of Kandahar.
The girl will be sent to a new family when she turns 14, and until now Hasretullah has received two payments of the agreed amount.
“I spent most of the money to buy food and some medicine for my youngest son. Look at him, he is malnourished,” the man says as he lifts the shirt off his son Shamsullah’s stomach to show his swollen belly.
Staggeringly high rates of malnutrition are evidence that hunger is already affecting children under five in Afghanistan.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is seeing an increase in the number of people visiting their facilities that treat malnutrition across the country. The increase this year is 47 percent compared to last year.
MSF’s nutrition center in Herat is the only well-equipped facility to treat malnutrition cases and serves not only Herat, but also the neighboring provinces of Ghor and Badghis, where malnutrition rates have increased by 55 percent over the past year.
Since last year, the center has increased the number of beds to cope with the number of sick children who have to be admitted to the center. However, the facility is always overcrowded with patients.
The center often has to treat children with more than one disease.
Omid, who is 14 months old, is malnourished, has a hernia and blood poisoning. And he weighs only four kilograms, and the doctors told us that a normal child at this age weighs at least 6.6 kilograms.
His mother Amna had to borrow money to pay for a trip to the hospital when Omid started vomiting profusely.
We asked Hamidullah Mutawakkil, a spokesman for the Taliban provincial government in Herat, what they are doing to address the hunger crisis.
He replied: “The situation has been made worse by international sanctions on Afghanistan and as a result of the freezing of Afghan assets. Our government is trying to determine the number of people in need, because many lie about their living conditions because they think they can get help.”
Mutawakel stood his ground despite being told that we had seen incredible evidence of how bad the situation was.
He also said the Taliban were trying to create employment opportunities, adding: “We are looking forward to the opening of the iron ore mine and the gas pipeline project.”
It is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
People have told us that they feel abandoned and neglected by the Taliban government and the international community.
Hunger is a slow killer, and its effects are not always immediately visible.
The true extent of this crisis may never be revealed because the world is not accused of it and no one is counting on it.
Get involved in reporting: Imogen Anderson and Malik Mudasir