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For Displaced Afghans, Hardship Increases During Pandemic

FILE: An Afghan boy gives a thumbs-up as he pushes a wheelbarrow through a muddy lane at a displacement camp in Kabul in November 2019.
FILE: An Afghan boy gives a thumbs-up as he pushes a wheelbarrow through a muddy lane at a displacement camp in Kabul in November 2019.

KABUL -- Najiba, who goes by one name only, is an Afghan widow who begs to survive after being displaced in her own country.

The middle-aged woman says she and her seven children had no choice but to flee their village in eastern Afghanistan last year after an airstrike killed her husband, Karimullah. She now lives on donations from strangers and family in the capital, Kabul.

“After my husband was killed, we had to leave because of continued fighting,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The government hasn't helped us in any way. All we want is to receive the help we desperately need. We are living in a difficult situation.”

Najiba had lived in Deh Bala, a rural mountainous district in the eastern province of Nangahar, where hundreds of thousands have repeatedly been forced to flee their homes by the emergence of the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants in 2015. The jihadist group has engaged in horrendous atrocities against civilians, and their presence has attracted operations by Afghan and international forces. The Taliban have also fought against IS in Nangarhar.

FIEL: Internally Displaced Afghans in the eastren province of Nangarhar.
FIEL: Internally Displaced Afghans in the eastren province of Nangarhar.

Sayed Arif, 60, a farmer in the neighboring district of Achin, has braved repeated displacement during the past five years. He now lives in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s provincial capital, but has not received any assistance. “I can’t find work, and our problems and needs increase every day,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I want the government and aid organizations to pay attention to our misery.”

Arif and Najiba are among some 4 million Afghans the United Nations estimates have been displaced by fighting and natural disasters inside their country since 2012. For nearly four decades, Afghans have been one of the largest refugee groups globally, but in recent years internal displacement has turned into a top humanitarian issue for the country of 35 million people.

As the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to begin important peace talks soon, tens of thousands of Afghans continue to be displaced. Just this month, more than 50,000 civilians were displaced by fighting between the Afghan security forces and insurgents in the northeastern province of Kunduz.

“Conflict continues to be the main driver of internal displacement in Afghanistan,” said Parvathy Ramaswami, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan. “The combination of decades of conflict with repeated displacement, poverty, and now COVID-19 has eroded people’s ability to cope and increased humanitarian needs across the country.”

The UN estimates that so far this year more than 122,000 people were displaced by conflict across Afghanistan while natural disasters have forced another 55,000 to flee their homes. The largest number of displaced are concentrated in the north, northeast, and eastern parts of the country. In addition, almost half a million undocumented Afghans have returned to their country. Most came from neighboring Iran.

“Many are still living in overcrowded and underserviced informal settlements,” Ramaswami said of the displaced. “For people on the move, we are particularly concerned about the risk of spreading COVID-19 due to population movements as compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures is not possible for the majority of displaced families.”

She says humanitarian aid agencies have helped more than 2 million displaced people gain access to water, sanitation, and hygiene aid. In addition, they have helped Afghan authorities spread information about COVID-19 to some 5 million Afghans while also helping authorities cope with ongoing floods in the country.

Abdul Basit Ansari, an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, says last year Kabul categorized more than 250,000 individuals as internally displaced. He says the Afghan authorities are working with international aid organizations on the issue. However, he told Radio Free Afghanistan that their efforts have barely made a dent in the massive displacement problem Afghanistan faces.

Displaced Afghans in the northern province of Jawzjan in February 2019.
Displaced Afghans in the northern province of Jawzjan in February 2019.

The UN has received only a third of the more than $1 billion in funding it has sought for humanitarian needs in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, many Afghans continue to suffer in displacement. Gul Jan, a mother of four, is among the thousands displaced by fighting in the northern province of Faryab this month. As she cooks rice inside a makeshift kitchen in a dilapidated mud house in the provincial capital, Maimana, her two young sons run barefoot around the courtyard. One of her elder sons has become a heroin addict while the other disappeared amid fighting in the rural district of Pashtun Kot.

“Our life is very hard, and every day is a challenge,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Alas, there could be peace, but we don’t see it coming.”

Millions of Afghans are now closely watching whether the Afghan government and the Taliban will strike a bargain over their country’s political future, which could end more than four decades of war in the country.

“We remain hopeful that the intra-Afghan talks scheduled to start soon will result in sustainable peace and a better future for all people in Afghanistan,” Ramaswami said.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Rahmatullah Afghan and Mohammad Ekram Karam contributed reporting from Kabul and Maimana, Afghanistan.