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In Afghanistan, the threat of widespread famine looms as drought and hunger continues


Next week marks three months since the Afghan government fell amidst the departure of U.S. forces. And since the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan on August 30, it's been hard to get a sense of what life is like for the Afghans left behind living under Taliban rule - this as the economy disintegrates, drought and now famine sets in, and many Afghans struggle to survive, like the children in this hospital in Kabul.


JANE FERGUSON: Son of Sadam written on a piece of tape stuck to this child's chest is all that identifies him. With each shallow breath, his chances of making it grow thinner.

CORNISH: That's the voice of PBS NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson. She just wrapped a nearly two-week-long reporting trip in the country, where she spent time in Herat and Kabul. Jane Ferguson joins me now from Doha. And just a moment of warning here - this conversation may have some disturbing content for some listeners.


FERGUSON: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: We played just that small clip from your visit to a children's ward. Can you talk about what is going on in these hospitals in Kabul?

FERGUSON: In Kabul and across the country, if you're lucky enough to be near a functioning hospital, many hospitals are barely or not functioning anymore - the rural clinics. But I visited Kabul and Herat in the west of the country, which is very badly hit by the drought, and you're finding that the child malnutrition wards have been filling up with premature babies, newborn babies and toddlers who are struggling severely with what the aid agencies called SAM - severe acute malnutrition. And the children have become malnourished. It makes them sick. It makes them vulnerable to infection. It makes them difficult to feed, difficult to keep food down. It basically spirals into a health crisis for a whole tiny, tiny generation.

What's been so stark about the onslaught of this hunger crisis is how fast it's happened. The doctors have been shocked. Of course, you know, there were economic problems in Afghanistan for quite some time now. But since the collapse of the government and the cutting off of people's salaries, we've really, really seen a massive, fast spike in hunger.

CORNISH: I know you were able to actually speak to parents. What are they telling you about this experience?

FERGUSON: A lot of people in Afghanistan and those parents that you meet in these hospitals are families that were provided for by someone who perhaps had day labor, a casual worker who would have worked hand-to-mouth, day to day. And the trickle-down effect, or the knock-on of the financial collapse has meant that that kind of work has dried up - you know, construction sites, trash collection, this kind of thing. If you're looking at a population that was already extremely poor, even by the standards of Afghanistan, that's what those parents are telling me. It's that, you know, they were just about able to feed themselves before. They didn't have any safety net, which would be savings or a line of credit or some family that could help. That doesn't exist for millions of Afghans.

On top of that, you also have even the staff in the hospitals - middle-class, educated Afghans - haven't been paid in months. So even they are struggling to feed their kids. So it's really a complete cash crunch. Worth also mentioning that even if you have savings in the bank, because the country's foreign assets have been frozen in an effort to make sure that the Taliban doesn't access them, banks in Afghanistan have basically enacted severe capital controls. You can only get $200 a week out of your bank account. So even if you have money in the bank, you can't access it.

CORNISH: Winter is falling on the country. There are many people who now risk exposure to freezing temperatures. I know you spoke with a Taliban leader. What are they saying? I mean, they must be facing some pressure just to feed people.

FERGUSON: They're under huge pressure. You know, if they cannot deliver, if they end up having to take ownership of a famine, that is a disastrous situation for them. They have been - very much so - putting forward to the international community their best foot, saying, look; we're open to aid workers. We would like to welcome all people who are trying to help the Afghan people.

You know, it's a big 180, of course. For the last 20 years, they've been killing, attacking, kidnapping both Afghan and foreign aid workers relentlessly and not recognizing the humanitarian work or the neutrality of humanitarian workers. So they're putting a big push on to try to get the aid agencies back in because they're very well aware that the public support will not be there for them. Whatever public support they have - it's very hard to gauge - will absolutely flatline if they cannot run a functioning country.

They're also well aware that they haven't fed their own soldiers. The Taliban fighters that occupy these cities across the country are not getting salaries. That's a very dangerous situation, to have men with guns and hungry stomachs. So they're well aware that this situation could spiral.

As you say, the winter is coming in. And in Afghanistan, winters are incredibly brutal, especially in the north. In the capital of Kabul, you know, you get snowfall in the mountains. So people are going to be desperate. Their ability to buy fuel to stay warm has never been more stretched thin across the country. Every year in refugee camps, you do get deaths from small children who die of hypothermia, even in the best of times. This winter is likely to be an extremely bitter one.

CORNISH: We started this conversation with your reporting in a children's ward, which is always going to be kind of a hard assignment - right? - to bear witness to. Were there any signs of hope there or even in the country that you're coming away with?

FERGUSON: You know, it's funny you should ask that, because I was just sitting down yesterday and today to write a script for our next piece. And I used the word hope because I did visit one place that has always over the years of reporting on Afghanistan and giving me hope, which was the Red Cross Center in Kabul.

You know, one ray of hope is that we have to remember at least the fighting for now has stopped. There are a lot of very upsetting and frightening things happening in Afghanistan right now. But at least the, quote, unquote, "war fighting" has largely ended. What this has meant is that people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to access the city, who couldn't travel those treacherously dangerous roads because of IEDs, checkpoints, banditry, that has actually opened up for people. So when you went to the Red Cross Center in Kabul, where they fit people with high-quality, free prosthetics for amputees and people with disabilities - and what I saw when I walked in were Taliban fighters, former government soldiers and civilians all sitting together, learning to walk again, trying to get better prosthetics, just trying in a time of peace to get healed. And I think that we have to remember that the one bright ray of hope for now is the lack of fighting, the lack of violence on a war level. I don't know how long that will last, but I can feel in some rural areas people starting to breathe.

CORNISH: That's Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, about her reporting trip in Afghanistan. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

FERGUSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.