In Kabul, hungry women now silently wait for bread outside bakeries : Goats and Soda Since the Taliban came to power, food insecurity has risen. Women in blue burqas sit in front of the city's upscale bakeries, silently waiting for charitable passersby to purchase bread for them.

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

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Afghanistan, about half the population is regularly going without food. Some people are selling land, livestock - even their own children - just to eat. The U.N. says the country needs more humanitarian aid to prevent starvation, but that help has yet to come. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Kabul on exactly what the hunger crisis looks like there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Leila (ph) sits with her baby on the sticky floor of the malnutrition ward of the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul. Her baby, Ali Mohammad (ph), is 8 months old. He has a small head, big eyes. His face is wrinkled. His arms and legs are sticks. He tries to cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

HADID: Leila says her breast milk dried up.

LEILA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And so what did you give Ali?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken)?

LEILA: (Through interpreter) Nothing. I was just giving him black tea.

HADID: She could only feed him tea.

LEILA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says, "it made him shrivel up."

LEILA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Leila says, even as her baby starved, her neighbors had nothing to give her. Everyone around her has been struggling since the Taliban seized power last August. After they came to power, Western governments cut off the aid that propped up the Afghan government. Washington froze Afghanistan's central bank assets. The number of Afghans needing food aid to survive doubled to 20 million people - about half the population.

HSIAO-WEI LEE: What happened after August was extremely surprising. It really showed that there was a lack of resilience in people because, by September, we were seeing what you saw in Indira Gandhi Hospital.

HADID: Hsiao-Wei Lee is the deputy director for the World Food Programme in Afghanistan. She says Afghans became malnourished so quickly because their ability to cope was depleted over the years by conflict, drought, the pandemic and now the economic fallout.

LEE: There was a lot of reliance on the international community's presence here.

HADID: But the international community hasn't stepped up enough. The UN's appeal for this year, $4.4 billion, is only one-third funded. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is diverting resources, even as it's caused food prices to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING BY)

HADID: Now, women in blue burqas flock like birds outside bakeries. They wait for charitable Afghans to buy them bread. One of the women waiting is Khadija (ph).

KHADIJA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She's got nine daughters. She says they cry from hunger.

KHADIJA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She walks to this bakery from her hilltop slum nearly every day, ever since her husband lost his job as a watchman last winter.

KHADIJA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Her feet are swollen. Her toenails are black. On the day we meet Khadija, there's already a crowd in front of the bakery. Men are slapping the dough into flat loaves inside...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUGH BEING POUNDED REPEATEDLY)

HADID: ...But she often goes home empty-handed.

KHADIJA: (Through interpreter) I knock on the neighbors' doors to ask for spare food. I ask the Taliban at the checkpoint if they have dry bread.

HADID: Some of the women waiting for bread were made destitute by the Taliban's own policies.

What is your name?

FAHIMA: Fahima (ph). My name is Fahima.

HADID: Hi, Fahima. How do you do?

Fahima sits outside another bakery.

FAHIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: When the Taliban banned secondary education, her mother lost her job as a cleaner in a girls' school. Her father was killed years ago. She starts crying.

FAHIMA: (Through interpreter, crying) It's hard for me to walk here because my legs ache. But I tell myself, what will we eat if I don't do this? My mother is too old. My sisters are too ashamed to beg. I go home so sad.

HADID: A spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Javeid Hazheeri (ph), says they did not expect so many Afghans would be malnourished when they seized power.

JAVEID HAZHEERI: It was one of the challenges and one of the things that - we were shocked when we came here. And we saw that, in the past, millions of dollars came to Afghanistan.

HADID: He says they're trying to help.

HAZHEERI: Right now, we have more than 2,300 clinics for the malnourished children.

HADID: But it's not enough, given the scale of the problem. Dr. Hazheeri says, ultimately, to curb malnutrition, they need the economy to function. As it stands, the economic crisis has sucked in Afghanistan's middle class. We head to a food distribution center run by the World Food Programme. Taliban security forces - young men with curly hair - try keep order as a crowd waits outside. One shouts over a megaphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Inside, women register for a month's worth of flour, cooking oil and beans, including Khadija. She's 57, has a shiny handbag and tidy shoes. Her family used to live off the pension her husband received as a retired schoolteacher.

KHADIJA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: After the Taliban came to power, the pension stopped. She sold her apartment, but that money is running out. I asked Khadija how it feels to ask for help.

KHADIJA: (Non-English language spoken, crying). It's a hard ending for me. I've never opened my hands to ask for the charity in my life. It feels so hard to ask.

HADID: Outside, we pass a row of men with wheelbarrows. They're hoping those receiving food aid will need help to cart it away. They get a two-cent tip for the work. One of the men stops us, Mohammad Hussein (ph).

MOHAMMAD HUSSEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He's tied a piece of cloth around his waist to keep his pants up. He says, "we carry other people's food, but we are hungry. Nobody gives us food." Other men surround us and echo him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "Nobody gives us food. Help us." They're unlikely to get help. Lee from the World Food Programme 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.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Kabul.

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