KABUL — Every couple of weeks, 50-year old Mari Jaan joins hundreds of other Afghans in a long food line, where she waits for a few modest items: a jug of cooking oil, bags of flour, lentils, salt.

Even after she collects this haul, her bag is light — and her burdens at home increasingly heavy.

"The power, the water, it's all been shut off," says Mari Jaan. Her husband has been unemployed and ill for much of the last year. "It's been impossible to afford the bills without him."

But what really worries her is the approaching winter.

"We're not prepared. We don't have coal, we don't have wood, and we definitely don't have enough to eat," she says, as she waits a couple of hours outside the gates of a food distribution center run by the World Food Programme.

When Afghanistan's government collapsed last year and the Taliban returned to power, it triggered a major humanitarian crisis. Donor governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund cut off their assistance, which sent the country's economy into a tailspin and left countless Afghans without jobs and incomes.

These days, more than 90% of Afghans don't have enough food to eat, according to the WFP and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — and the hardships families endured last year feel insurmountable this year.

"When we talk to people at our distribution sites, everybody tells us, 'Last winter was difficult, but we have no idea how we will get through the coming winter,'" says Philippe Kropf, the WFP's Kabul-based spokesperson.

In Afghanistan, hunger strikes hardest in the winter

This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that cases of child malnutrition seen at its hospitals in Afghanistan are 90% higher this year than they were in 2021. The aid group also reported that a children's hospital it supports in Kabul has seen a 55% increase in the number of children younger than 5 who are being treated for pneumonia, as people struggle to keep their homes warm.

Certain work, like construction, temporarily stops during colder months, leaving Afghanistan's day laborers without a steady income for that period.

"The construction sites typically freeze over in the winter and so a lot of us in construction don't have jobs and don't make money in the winter months," says 32-year-old Shahzaman Mohammadi, waiting at the tail end of the food line.

The country's harvest this year, particularly of wheat, was much lower than expected, in part because of a years-long drought, but also because of rising fuel and fertilizer costs. All of this means many families in the countryside may struggle to make it through the winter on subsistence farming alone. Getting aid to those communities and more remote villages may not be possible, depending on weather and road conditions.

Households that are teetering, barely able to support themselves, may have to make the same difficult choice this year that they were forced to make last winter: to spend what little money they have on food or on coal and firewood to keep warm.

Aid organizations are also in a tougher spot this year, says Kropf.

The WFP says it is in need of more than $1 billion in additional funding to keep its operations in Afghanistan going through the winter. The war in Ukraine caused a massive spike in food and energy prices this year, it reports. The aid group's food basket is about 20% more expensive than it was last year.

The changing face of hunger

In Kabul, it's not uncommon to find former teachers, members of the military and even government employees waiting for cash or food aid.

"We are seeing a changing face of hunger in Afghanistan," says Kropf. "With the vanishing of jobs, with the economy in a meltdown situation, we're now seeing people standing in line for food assistance who never would have believed in their lives they'd be standing in line for aid."

Khudai Nazar, 41, is among them.

For years, he fixed flat tires for a living and was able to support his family of nine. But that financial security ended soon after the government collapsed and he lost his job.

"We've had to cut back a lot to get by," says Nazar, as he makes his way through a food line. "We used to eat meat several times a week; now we're lucky if we can eat it a couple times a month."

He doesn't blame the new government for upending his life. Few waiting in line at the WFP distribution center do. Instead, many see the international community at fault.

"Life was much better before the arrival of the Islamic Emirate," Nazar says, referring to the Taliban government. "The sanctions imposed on this government have affected us all."

While certain Taliban leaders, now in the government, have long faced international sanctions, the country and its institutions do not. The economic factors that have turned the lives of so many Afghans upside-down have more to do with international recognition of the Taliban.

The U.S. engaged the Taliban in peace talks during the Trump administration, but neither Washington nor any other country recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. The U.S. and others revoked the central bank of Afghanistan's credentials, blocking the country's access to the international banking system and $9 billion it held in foreign currency reserves.

The Biden administration has released $3.5 billion of the total for crucial humanitarian needs through the creation of a foundation meant to bypass the Taliban. But governments and financial institutions remain apprehensive about resuming their own programs.

After declining repeated NPR requests for an interview, the office of the IMF spokesperson sent this statement: "Since there continues to be a lack of clarity within the international community regarding the recognition of a government in Afghanistan, the IMF has paused its engagement with Afghanistan."

It's against this backdrop that millions of Afghans as well as aid groups are bracing for a bitter winter.

"We're worried, we know it will be tough," says Mohammadi, the construction worker. "It's all in God's hands now."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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