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Afghan child cries in hospital

Children receive medical treatment in the Afghan capital of Kabul on April 18, 2022. (Photo: Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

'The Children Scream From the Hunger at Night': Afghans Suffer After Biden Seizes Funds

Stories of hungry families in Afghanistan come as the Biden administration faces pressure to reconsider a February decision that one journalist described as "tantamount to mass murder."

Jessica Corbett

New reporting from The Washington Post on Monday laid out the increasingly dire conditions across Afghanistan amid drought and in the wake of the Taliban takeover and disastrous U.S. withdrawal last year following nearly two decades of war.

"Sometimes all we have is donated stale bread and tea."

"We were poor before the takeover. Now we have nothing," Ahmed Shah Jamshidi told journalist Susannah George, who reports that the 42-year-old Afghan borrows money from shopkeepers to buy potatoes and cooking oil so his wife can make his family a watery stew.

When the family has no food, "the children scream from the hunger at night," Jamshidi explained. "Sometimes all we have is donated stale bread and tea. And when we run out of tea, I just gather grass to boil with the water."

George's accounts from struggling families come as members of the former Afghan government, diaspora groups, and relatives of 9/11 victims call on U.S. President Joe Biden to help end the suffering after freezing $7 billion in the nation's central bank funds.

In a move that The Intercept's Austin Ahlman called "tantamount to mass murder," Biden in February signed an executive order to evenly split the central bank assets held in the Federal Reserve between a trust "for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan" and American families of 9/11 victims who have taken legal action in the U.S. court system.

Various reports from United Nations and humanitarian organizations in recent months have found about 20 million people in Afghanistan, roughly half the population, face acute hunger.

"Unprecedented levels of humanitarian assistance focused on bolstering food security have made a difference. But the food security situation is dire," Richard Trenchard, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Afghanistan, said last month.

"Humanitarian assistance remains desperately important, as do the needs to rebuild shattered agricultural livelihoods and reconnect farmers and rural communities to struggling rural and urban markets across the country," he added. "Unless these happen, there will be no way out of this crisis."

George at the Post spoke with Madina Noori, who traveled over 250 miles to seek help for her daughter, Sahar, in the malnutrition ward at a children's hospital in the capital Kabul:

"She was fine when she was born, but after a few days I began to worry something was wrong," said Noori, who didn't have enough milk to sustain her. "Her skin started turning yellow, and she was very weak."

Sahar's health deteriorated quickly. By the time Noori got her to the hospital, the baby couldn't swallow liquids. Even after a week of treatment, Sahar hadn’t improved. Her hands and feet were gaunt, her skin a pale gray.

"They told us she may need to stay here for weeks, but I don't know if we can stay that long," said Noori, who is quickly running out of money. She and her mother sleep on the hospital floor beside Sahar's bed because they can't afford a place to stay.

The newspaper noted that the U.S. State Department's "refusal to recognize the Taliban also made it impossible for the country's new rulers to access billions of dollars in foreign assets. Parallel moves by the World Bank and the European Union brought Afghanistan's economy crashing down."

Although the U.S. government and others have recently begun to "funnel money through the United Nations and groups that bypass Taliban leadership," the Post continued, "these hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid are a small fraction of the billions that once kept the country afloat."

NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid praised George's reporting and the article's accompanying photographs, taken by Lorenzo Tugnoli.

"This story. And these images—absolutely devastating," Khalid said, thanking the journalist "for keeping an eye on Afghanistan... as so much of the world looks away."

George's coverage came a week after The Intercept's Murtaza Hussain detailed calls for the Biden administration "to take urgent steps to help the Afghan economy," highlighting the impact of the $7 billion seizure and that lawyers are likely to be key beneficiaries of the February order.

Kelly Campbell, co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, told Hussain about what she saw while leading a delegation to Afghanistan and her view of Biden's actions.

"There are people waiting in bread lines and very poor children with malnutrition visible in public, but there are also many middle-class people rapidly falling into poverty," she said. "This is being driven in part because there's no longer a functioning banking system and people are unable to access their salaries. It's a problem that humanitarian aid alone is not going to be able to solve."

"The fact of the matter is that these reserves are the Afghan people's money. The idea that they are on the brink of famine and that we would be holding on to their money for any purpose is just wrong," Campbell added. "The Afghan people are not responsible for 9/11, they're victims of 9/11 the same way our families are. To take their money and watch them literally starve—I can't think of anything more sad."

Highlighting Hussain's article last week, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) noted the rising hunger as well as a reported increase in child marriages.

"It's happening all over and in different social economic spheres," said Cornelius Williams, head of child protection for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in April. "What we are seeing is a commodification of girls and child marriages becoming more of a transaction. Children in general are becoming an economic commodity in the household."

According to CEPR, "The U.S. has a moral duty to end its inhumane economic policy and return what rightfully belongs to the people of Afghanistan."

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