People across Afghanistan celebrated Eid on Sunday, but for millions of Afghans, it was yet another day of struggle to bring food to the table.
More than 90 percent of Afghans have been facing a shortage of food, according to the United Nations. Jamal, who did not wish to share his real name, is among those for whom Eid, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, brought little joy.
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The 38-year-old has struggled to make ends meet as the country finds itself gripped by a severe humanitarian crisis triggered since the Taliban takeover last August.
A few pieces of bread from the nearby bakery is what Jamal could secure for his family of 17 members. Some of it will be saved for later to be had with whatever meal they are able to receive from charitable friends and neighbours.
“But I don’t expect we will get much even for Eid. Who will give me money or food? The whole city is living under poverty. I never saw anything like it even in the refugee camps where I grew up,” he said, referring to his upbringing in refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan.
A former junior-level government official, Jamal spent most of the month of Ramadan looking for work or support to find food for sehri (suhoor in Arabic), the pre-dawn meal, and for iftar, the meal to break one’s fast at dusk. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
‘The worst Ramadan of my life’
Jamal says his situation wasn’t always so dire. He recalls previous Ramadans – a time of prayers, spiritual reflection, and family.
“Every Ramadan and Eid we come together with the family and community to worship. This month and the Eid has always been about unity and forgiveness for us, but this year it has been the opposite,” Jamal said.
“It has been the worst Ramadan of my life; not only are we starving, but there is no unity, nor can we worship in peace,” he said, referring to the recent attacks on mosques in Afghanistan.
Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada on Sunday congratulated Afghans on “victory, freedom and success” while attending Eid prayers in the eastern city of Kandahar. But the humanitarian crisis and the deteriorating security situation did not find mention in his address.
Jamal was fired from his government job after the Taliban takeover. “I always wanted to serve my country. But I wasn’t in the military, nor was I associated with any political group. And they [Taliban] still fired me,” he said.
The loss of the only source of income hit Jamal’s family very hard, and they were financially crippled in a short time. “Since the Taliban takeover, my family hasn’t had a full meal. And this Ramadan we were breaking our fast with just water and bread. And the Eid is no different,” he said.
“Last Ramadan, during the last few days, we were out shopping for the kids, and even took the family out for the last iftar dinner. But this year, all we can do is not die of hunger.”
Food security levels plunged
According to UN data shared during the Afghanistan Conference in March, more than 24 million Afghans – over half of the country’s population – are in need of humanitarian assistance to survive. Food security levels have plunged, triggered by United States sanctions that made it harder for humanitarian NGOs to provide life-saving aid.
As the situation continues to deteriorate, several NGOs inside Afghanistan are reporting an increase in the number of families seeking aid and services from them.
“We have been running campaigns during Ramadan, mostly for a food donation for over five years, and this year has been the worst,” said Abdul Manan Momand, a social worker from Nangarhar province. He requested that the name of his organisation be kept discreet.
“Last year, we distributed aid to around 3,000 families just in one province, but this year so far, we have provided aid to over 12,000 families.”
Momand said that many of the newer families approaching them for support are those who were previously well-off but were financially hit following the Taliban takeover.
“A lot of people lost their jobs and many families are suffering because there is no income. Many among them are also widows who lost their jobs,” he said, adding that at least one woman to whom they provided support this Ramadan had been a regular contributor to their previous donation campaigns.
“She used to work with an NGO and generously contributed to our past campaigns, but this year she lost her job, and approached us for support. It is heartbreaking to see how families are struggling,” he added.
High inflation, widespread unemployment
Meanwhile, Afghan markets are witnessing high inflation, coupled with widespread unemployment.
“There is always some increase in prices during Ramadan in regional countries, but the Ramadan price hikes are compounding already high inflation rates in Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s takeover of the country,” pointed out Ahmad Jamal Shuja, former government official and co-author of The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a group of UN human rights experts on Monday called on the US government to unblock assets of Afghanistan’s central bank that were frozen following the fall of the previous government in August 2021.
“Humanitarian actors face serious operational challenges due to the uncertainty caused by banks’ zero-risk policies and over-compliance with sanctions,” their statement read, calling out the recent renewal of the US government’s decision to block Afghan assets amounting to $7bn.
“The international community has been trying to do their best, including by easing sanctions and giving the Taliban a chance to ease sanctions … offered to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in educational assistance – to pay the salaries of struggling teachers – if the Taliban reverse their ban on girls’ secondary education,” Shuja said, referring to the continued closure of girls’ higher education in the country.
“The Taliban are putting their ideology ahead of the needs of a starving Afghan population,” he said.
Families like Jamal’s, who earlier thrived on a sparse income of 15,000 afghanis ($175) per month, have felt the strongest impact of the economic crash.
“Even though I did not earn a lot before, it was sufficient,” Jamal said. “Right now there is no income in our family. But the prices of basic goods have risen. Earlier we would buy a bag of flour for 1,600 afghanis ($19) and now it cost over 2,700 afghanis ($32). A can of cooking oil was for 400 afghanis ($4.70) [and] now it’s more than double.”
The sole breadwinner
As the sole breadwinner of his family, Jamal had worked hard to provide for their needs along with small luxuries. He grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and had spent many years working odd jobs to finish his higher education.
“After returning from refuge [after the fall of Taliban in 2001], I would sell fruits and tissue boxes on the streets of Kabul. Later, I was employed as a guard in a foreigner’s guest house, and all the while I studied after hours to complete my degree and get this civil servant’s job,” he said.
“One of my brothers is a drug addict and my father is also not employed. I have always looked after my family, and I worked hard to get to a position where I could offer them small comforts. But now our life is worse than it was in the refugee camps in Pakistan.”
Nearly 20 years after returning from a Pakistani refugee camp, Jamal once again finds himself looking for work on the streets. He borrowed some money to purchase a small hand cart hoping to get work pushing small goods in the market. “But there aren’t any goods to be carried,” he said. “Most days I return home empty-handed.”
“It is extremely hard to focus [on prayers], especially when the children are crying for food. I feel extremely helpless sometimes, but I am hoping some day Allah will listen to our prayers,” Jamal told Al Jazeera.