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Children on the edge of life: Afghanistan's innocent victims

Stark Images Highlight The Youngest Casualties Of The Crisis

Harija, 6, lives with her parents and five siblings in a tiny two-room house made of compacted earth in a remote desert community in Jawzjan, northern Afghanistan. Her family cannot afford enough food and survives on just bread.

Afghanistan's growing humanitarian crisis is having its most severe impact on children. Jim Huylebroek, a Belgian freelance photographer, recently traveled across the country documenting their plight for the charity Save the Children as Afghanistan marked six months since the Taliban took control.

His images are a powerful reminder of the grim reality for families across the country, the daily struggle to survive the winter and the millions of young lives now at risk.

Nearly 5 million children stand on the brink of starvation as Afghanistan faces its worst ever food crisis amid an exceptionally bitter winter. The triple impacts of drought, conflict and economic collapse are threatening the survival of many families. Many are selling what little they have to buy food, sending their children to work or getting by on bread alone.

The withdrawal of international aid and the freezing of overseas financial assets have driven Afghanistan's public services to the brink of collapse. Hospitals across the country have been forced to close as wages for health workers have dried up. Desperately sick children are being turned away as there are simply no medicines to treat them and, where they are available, soaring prices mean they are too expensive to afford.

"Humanitarian aid can get children through the winter, but this crisis can't be solved with aid alone. Afghanistan is a cash-based economy, so without cash coming into the country, it's not difficult to see that ordinary people are going to suffer, said Chris Nyamandi, Save the Children's country director for Afghanistan. "Governments must find a way to unlock vital funds and financial assets to prevent further mass loss of life."

These images show the extreme hardships facing children and their families throughout the country, from the drought-ravaged plains of the north to the freezing streets of Kabul. They lay bare the fight for survival: families making impossible decisions about which child they can afford to feed, and which will go hungry; infants dying on their way to medical treatment; mothers giving birth alone on dirt floors because they cannot afford to travel to hospital; and children forced to work on the streets to put food on the table.

In some of the hardest-hit areas, Save the Children is distributing cash, winter clothes and fuel to families. The cash assistance helps to prevent families from resorting to desperate measures that adversely affect children such as child labor, early marriage and reduced meals, said Nyamandi.

Names have been changed due to security and privacy reasons.


In Kabul, 12-year-old Arzoo is the oldest of seven children in her family and stands behind her younger siblings. She has not been able to attend school all winter as schools are closed. Her father has not been able to work for months and the family has been borrowing money to buy food. Most days they just eat bread because they cannot afford anything else. Arzoo's mother, father and 18-month-old brother are ill, but the family cannot afford to see a doctor. "Now there is no job for my father to do and bring food home. One day we have food and the next day we don't," Arzoo said.


Samira, a 3-year-old child in Jawzjan, is held by her grandfather, Abdul. The community where the family lives has little access to health care. Few can afford to travel to the nearest hospital and even if they make it there, they usually cannot afford to pay for treatment. Families here rely on Save the Children's mobile health clinic, which visits the area once a week for essential medical advice and treatment. Samira was previously given treatment for malnutrition and pneumonia here and has now fully recovered.


One-year-old Ninangyali in Jawzjan is suffering from severe acute malnutrition. When Ninangyali was just 8 months, his family fled their home to escape conflict and lived in a camp in the desert. Without enough food to eat, he soon became weak from malnutrition. The family took him to hospital but was unable to afford treatment. He is now being treated for malnutrition at a mobile health clinic.


Laalah, 12, sits with her siblings Faakhir, 1, Aabhas, 10, Aabid, 7, and Cachi, 5, outside their home in Balkh Province. The children are forced to collect garbage and twigs to burn, and cans and other bottles to sell in the bazaar for a pittance. When this photo was taken, it had been three days since the children had eaten anything apart from bread. "There's no food. Sometimes we eat once a day. Sometimes twice. If we receive help from neighbors, sometimes three times, " says their father, Maalek.


Laalah and her family fled conflict in Faryab. Her father is struggling to find work as a day laborer. Unable to afford a proper dwelling, he erected a tent, built with tarpaulin sheets, in the basement of a half-finished building. The siblings collect cans and bottles to sell so they can buy food and gather twigs to burn at home. "My dream is to find somewhere, to build a place for them ... so that they can stop being homeless like this," says her father. Laalah adds: "I hope there are schools in the future. I want to go to school. To be either a teacher or doctor. I want our living to be good, to eat good food."


Noori, 12, lives in Kabul with his grandfather, parents and siblings. His father used to work in the brick factories on the city's outskirts, but recently the work has run out. The family has almost no money and is unable to buy food. "The situation has become difficult," says his father. "Previously, one bag of flour was 1,400 to 1,500 Afghanis ($15.28 to $16.37), but now it is 2,500. As a family we use three to four bags per month. For this reason, I also told my son to find some kind of work. He said that if I found him work, he would do it. Our income has changed a lot. We used to have some money for essential needs, now we do not even have that.


A desolate landscape in Kabul. Families living in cities have been hit hardest, with half of families in Kabul saying they had lost their entire income. The huge spike in prices caused by the economic crisis has left many families unable to afford food. More than 80% of those surveyed by Save the Children reported loss of income since the collapse of the former government, with a over third -- 34.8% -- having lost all their household income. Families living in cities have been hit hardest, with half of families in Kabul saying they had lost their entire income. The huge spike in prices caused by the economic crisis has left many families unable to afford food.


Laila, 12, lives with her mother and four other siblings in a small house in a displacement camp in the Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan. The family fled their home in Sari Pul Province after Laila's father was killed. Her mother wanted to avoid being forced into another marriage. The family now lives in a camp where many have dug homes underground for warmth during the harsh winter. Laila's mother works in a nearby greenhouse where she earns around 200 Afghanis ($2) per day. Laila previously worked cleaning houses. "When I worked in people's houses, it was very hard. I had to work from morning till evening. I would bring home 10 Afghanis (10 cents) and buy tea with it for my family.


Afzal, 13, lives with his family in a remote desert community on the outskirts of Jawzjan in northern Afghanistan. For years, the community was completely cut off by conflict. The community used to pay for water to be trucked in, but the cost has doubled in recent months and they can no longer afford it. Before Save the Children started delivering safe water, Afzal often walked for two hours into the desert to collect water from a small, sulfurous spring. The families would mix the contaminated water with sand to filter it before drinking it. They also started collecting rainwater and snow on plastic sheets, funneling it into underground pits where it became stagnant and dirty. Children who drank the filthy water regularly fell ill with diarrhea.


Girls play outside after class at a Child Friendly Space in a displacement camp in Balkh Province. The spaces, established by Save the Children, provide children with a safe and inclusive environment to learn and play. In addition to the spaces, the charity is running Community-Based Education classes for primary-school-aged children who lack access to public schools. The classes offer an accelerated learning program for children who need help catching up. The program is also equipping students and teachers with essential materials such as notebooks, pens and pencils, and training teachers to support children's safety and emotional well-being.