Graana walked for more than two hours to seek treatment for her starving 2-year-old son at a hospital in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand.
"My son couldn't walk because he was so weak,” the mother of five told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. “Hunger had disfigured him to the extent that he started to look scary. I was hopeless."
After weeks of treatment at Boost Hospital, which is supported by Doctors Without Borders, the Geneva-based charity, Graana’s son is in stable condition. But he is among the lucky few who has received treatment.
Millions of Afghan children are suffering from severe malnourishment as hunger sweeps across Afghanistan, which has been gripped by a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis since the Taliban seized power in August.
The United Nations has warned that nearly 23 million people -- about 55 percent of the population -- are facing extreme levels of hunger. Children are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with 14 million at risk of starvation this winter, the UN said.
Foreign aid workers and Afghan medical staff estimate that dozens of children, mostly under the age of 5, are dying of starvation every week across the country.
Nooria is another mother who brought her young son to Boost Hospital, the largest health-care facility in Helmand, to receive treatment for severe malnourishment and tuberculosis.
"He has been here for over a week, but I have seen no improvement," she said of her 1-year-old son. "The doctors tell me he is malnourished.”
Afghan health-care professionals say many children arrive for treatment too late to be saved.
Afghanistan’s health-care system, propped up by years of foreign funding, is on the brink of collapse. Western donors halted funds after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15. Several thousand health facilities across Afghanistan have been closed in recent months. Those that remain open are struggling to operate with severe shortages of staff and medicine.
'Hanging By A Thread'
Mohammad Daud Nusrat, the head of the pediatrics department at Boost Hospital, says he has witnessed a steep increase in the number of severely malnourished children being brought in for treatment.
“Compared to the past year, malnourishment among children under 5 is spreading,” he told Radio Azadi, adding that the hospital treated 630 last month, compared to 380 in December 2020.
Sam Mort, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, the UN's children's agency, told RFE/RL that the organization was “deeply concerned about the rapidly escalating malnutrition crisis across Afghanistan.”
Mort said 1.1 million children under the age of 5 were in danger of dying from severe acute malnutrition. Another 3.2 million children, she said, were at risk of the malnutrition.
The UN defines severe acute malnutrition as a condition in which children suffer from stunting or impaired growth and severe weight loss.
"When I travel around the country, and I talk to nutrition counselors, doctors, and hospital directors, they are all recording a rise in the cases of severe acute malnutrition," said Mort, who is based in Kabul.
She says doctors around the country are witnessing premature births and other complications associated with insufficient food intake.
Afghanistan currently has one of the world's highest rates of arrested growth, according to UNICEF. Around 40 percent of Afghan children under 5 suffer from stunting. Wasting, defined as low weight for height, is visible in nearly 10 percent of all Afghan children.
“The malnutrition rates are doubling week on week,” Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan director for the UN World Food Program, recently told the Washington Post. “Emaciated children are coming into the hospitals. I’ve never experienced how quickly it’s deteriorated.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on January 26 that Afghanistan was "hanging by a thread." He urged the world body to suspend "rules and operations" that prevented international aid agencies from delivering assistance to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The United States and other foreign donors halted their financial assistance to Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power. Washington also froze some $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the United States over concerns that the militants could use the money to fund terrorism.
The drastic halt in foreign cash has fueled a deepening economic crisis in Afghanistan, which has suffered acute cash shortages and hyperinflation.
Saghar Nabizada, a mother of two, says she cannot even afford to buy bread. A teacher by profession, she lost her job because the Taliban has banned many women from working outside their homes.
"I wept when I was unable to even provide bread for my two children who were crying [because of hunger]," the 35-year-old told Radio Azadi. "It hurts me."