Kabul, Afghanistan – Nahida and her husband Mohammad Hanif strived to make a decent life for themselves from the moment they married seven years ago, and escape the poverty that traps at least one-third of their fellow Afghans. Five years ago, they succeeded.
Mohammad, a doctor, got a good job at the Ministry of Public Health and they were finally able to afford to move from his cramped family home to a modest little place in a middle-class neighbourhood in Kabul – something quite rare.
The capital has long been considered a paradoxical island; it’s drowning in much of the $104.8bn the United States has spent on reconstruction aid, security forces, barbed wire, and blast walls, while its surrounding provinces are poor, rural and either consumed by fighting or at the very least, volatility.
But this year, the relative economic stability these Afghans have worked so hard to attain has become a deadly liability.
Civilian deaths across the country have shot up 19 percent compared to last year. At least 3,188 Afghan non-combatants were killed in 2014, making it the deadliest year for civilians since the US-led war began in 2001, according to the United Nations.
And in the capital, the Taliban has set its sights on middle-class neighbourhoods, what analysts consider “soft targets”, and has doubled its suicide attacks there in the past two months.
Knowing this has forced Nahida to start making a rather grim choice – to pick and choose day to day whose life to risk. “I never bring all my children out of the house at the same time, in case something happens to us. At least this way, if it does, two of them will still be alive at home.”
It means usually she only leaves the house when necessary; to buy groceries or to visit family. But today, she and her husband are out with their twins celebrating their sixth birthday.
Her newborn and three-year-old are at home. They are at a small but colourful amusement park at the top of a mall – a place they would usually try to avoid given the Taliban has targeted it with suicide attacks almost half a dozen times in the past five years.
“I am wracked with stress,” Nahida says, nervously watching a young woman paint a butterfly on her daughter’s face. Her son is nearby, looking in a mirror to inspect the Spiderman design on his face.
“It is extreme stress from the moment I wake up until night. This place is not safe for anyone, not children, women, nor men,” she adds.
The irony is, in a country that is broke and reliant on foreign aid to get by, one is safer in poverty than in riches, at least in the capital, says Waheed Wafa, director of the Afghan Centre at Kabul University.
“The Taliban has shifted its strategy, their attacks have become more targeted. They have learnt the power of publicity and they‘ve been working hard at it, so they know now who to target to create the most fear. Attacking the middle class can create a lot of fear, the message spreads, it’s publicised on social media.“
By the end of 2014, the United Nations says the number of civilians casualties – deaths and injuries – in the 13-year-old Afghan war is expected to surpass 10,000 for the first time.
The UN blames the Taliban for 75 percent of those deaths and has been talking to its leaders to reduce civilian deaths. The UN says that hasn’t happened.
In fact, the number of children killed has increased 33 percent this year.
Maryam Rahmani, country representative at the Afghan Women’s Resource Centre, which helps provide services such as childcare to working mothers, said women almost exclusively shoulder the burden of keeping their children safe.
“There is less security now not just because of the attacks, but also because commercial areas are moving into residential areas, more traffic, more people. Because Afghan women fill a traditional role as mothers, it makes them responsible for not only raising the children, but everything else to do with it too,” Rahmani told Al Jazeera.
Attacking places such as the amusement park would not be out of the question, says Wafa, especially after the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban killed 132 children at a school in Peshawar earlier this month.
That came five days after a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a play at Kabul’s Lycee Esteghlal High School, killing a German and an Afghan photojournalist and wounding dozens of others, mostly students.
“Even though the Afghan Taliban condemned the Peshawar massacre, I don’t think they care about morality. They will continue to do their best to frighten people and test security forces,” says Wafa.
The mall, like the high school, are in middle-class neighbourhoods, which also house government offices, embassies, and non-government organisations and – for that reason – are frequented by foreigners.
Analysts say the Taliban believes if it creates fear among this part of the population, it will force NGOs and foreigners to leave.
“It’s not just the middle class caught up in the violence, it’s Afghans who work in high-target areas too,” Wafa says.
Making a living the hard way
Fatmeh, dressed in a faded blue burqa, risks her life every day begging for money on a busy main thoroughfare, just around the corner from the heavily fortified foreign ministry. There are at least three foreign embassies nearby and a big mall.
She has done this with three other women for the past two years, and each day she brings at least three of her 10 children.
“We’ve got nothing, so I come here every day, I look in the rubbish for food and to try and make about 200-300 afghanis ($3.50-$5.25) to buy bread. I know it’s not safe, not at all,” she says.
Fatmeh chose this spot because it’s just far enough away from a potential blast zone if targeted, but close enough that she might make money off wealthier Afghans and foreigners who come and go in the area.
This year, the number of women killed in Afghanistan has also gone up – 12 percent – compared to the same time last year, says the UN.
|Fatmeh begs to survive near the heavily fortified foreign ministry [Soraya Lennie/Al Jazeera]
Although it’s much more dangerous sitting near a target of terrorism all day, the chances of making money are higher there than in her own neighbourhood – one of the most wretchedly poor places in Afghanistan.
There, families live in a maze of tents, all stuck together with bits of wood and plastic sheeting, where the mud turns into sticky foul sludge in the winter.
Naz Pary, who sits in a tent she shares with eight others, nursing her sick baby, says she doesn‘t worry about the bombings or violence in the city. Nor about the US drawdown.
NATO troop numbers peaked at 130,000 in 2010 and the US has already pulled out most of its force before the December 31 deadline for withdrawal.
When asked if any of this has had any effect on her life, she replies simply, “No, none.”
“Only God can help us,“ she says, adding she consigned her fate to God rather than foreign forces or the Taliban a long time ago.