Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, the country's economy and infrastructure are collapsing. Hundreds of thousands are hungry; millions more are jobless and impoverished; and the hard Afghan winter is bearing down. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Afghanistan, with support from the Pulitzer Center.
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Judy Woodruff: It is now nearly three months since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and the country is collapsing. Hundreds of thousands are hungry. Millions more are jobless and impoverished. And the hard Afghan winter is bearing down. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson sent us this report, beginning in the capital, Kabul.
And a warning: Images in this story may disturb some viewers.
Jane Ferguson: Even in a country gripped by catastrophe, this may be its most desperate corner. The few remaining children's wards left operating in Afghanistan are flooded with weak, starving babies, the children of jobless fathers and malnourished mothers, an entire generation fighting to stay alive against the odds. "Son of Sadam," written on a piece of tape stuck to this child's chest, is all that identifies him. With each shallow breath, his chances of making it grow thinner. This ward is packed, frail, sick babies lined up next to one another in beds meant for one.
Dr. Abdul Jabad, Indira Gandhi Hospital: We have a little space, not a lot of space for every baby, for just every baby to one bed.
Jane Ferguson: So you put two, three in a bed?
Dr. Abdul Jabad, Indira Gandhi Hospital: Two, three, four sometimes in one bed.
Jane Ferguson: Dr. Abdul Jabad despairs at the numbers who come and never recover. Almost a third don't make it. That means four or five of the babies in this room will die. It's the very crowding that kills many, with weak, malnourished bodies unable to fight off infections from the others.
Dr. Abdul Jabad: We have not space — sterilization process here. Most of the baby take infection from the ward. You see here two baby in one bed.
Jane Ferguson: Downstairs in another ward, Dr. Marwa examines Ayaz. The lack of nutrients in his diet has led to a severe skin condition. His father was a laborer and work dried up, leaving his mother with little to give him. In another bed nearby lies Omid. His muscles have wasted away. At 18 months old, he weighs just over 10 pounds. He should weigh twice that. It took only a few months for Afghanistan's poorest to be gripped by hunger once the government collapsed. Without the government and its funding from the international community, the economy is in freefall. Millions have lost and jobs within the government and internationally funded organizations. And with a Taliban authority sweeping to power in August, aid agencies cannot send support to a recognized terrorist group. Across town, the newly jobless shuffle forward in line for help from the U.N.'s World Food Program. Many of the men here have never needed to live off handouts before, but these are desperate times.
Noor Ahmed, Afghanistan (through translator): There is hunger back home. We have food, but very little. We just put something small in our stomachs. There is no work and no money.
Jane Ferguson: The distribution is guarded by Taliban gunmen. If aid can be dispensed without it going through their government, then it can get around sanctions. Although the aid that went from the U.S. government to the Afghan government has been stopped, there is still some coming from USAID directly to civilians here through the WFP, the World Food Program. People have come here today. They are getting two sacks of wheat flour, 10 bottles of cooking oil and a small bag of soybean. It's not very much, and that's all families will get for the next two months. But it will keep them alive. The levels of hunger across the country are staggering; 14 million people, nearly half the population, need food assistance to survive. Leading humanitarians say aid must get directly to the people now, regardless of who is running the country.
David Beasley, Executive Director, World Food Program: Don't politicize food. I don't care which side you are on. Everyone should give us what we need to reach the innocent victims of this complex situation.
Jane Ferguson: The head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, David Beasley, flew into Kabul over the weekend. More than $9 billion of the country's foreign assets have been frozen by the U.S. government to prevent the Taliban from accessing them. Beasley says that's morally wrong.
David Beasley: All I'm doing is jumping up and down, saying, please you must understand that people are dying. More people are going to die. If you don't unfreeze those funds — unfreeze them in such a way they go directly to the people through organizations like us. I said, what am I missing here? These are innocent people. It's heartbreaking. I mean…
Jane Ferguson: How much does that impact your ability to get food to the people without getting money in the pockets of the Taliban?
David Beasley: We just want to reach the people that are vulnerable. We just want to reach the people that are really marching towards starvation. That isn't complicated.The Taliban have told us: We will stay out of your way. We will support anything you need to reach the people you need to reach. I need for everybody on all sides to take that same approach.
Jane Ferguson: The Taliban has, unsurprisingly, called for the assets to be released to their government. The pressure on the group mounts the longer their leadership is unable to abate the spreading hunger. We sat down with their main spokesman.
Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban Spokesman (through translator): The money that was frozen by the Americans is the money of the Afghan people. We told the American authorities, international community and the Europeans. We have told all countries this should never have happened. The economic crisis can be stopped. Also, we are cooperating with the NGOs and requested help from them.
Jane Ferguson: But it's not just the financial crisis that is keeping people hungry. Drought has gripped the country, with the national wheat harvest down by nearly a third this year. We traveled out to Herat in the west of the country, where the crisis is most severe. In his hard, parched fields, local farmer Mohammed Asif told us his wheat crop this year was 80 percent down. He has 125 acres, which would normally employ dozens of workers, supporting hundreds of family members.
Mohammad Asif, Herat Farmer (through translator): In the past, we were self-sufficient and relied on ourselves. We had good harvests. This last four or five years, the drought is very bad. We have never seen anything like this. We have lost 100-year-old trees here. When we have water and a good harvest, then we can keep livestock like cows and sheep and chickens.
Jane Ferguson: On the day we visited, there were only a few people, one of them a child harvesting a little saffron. The farmer has not planted this year's crop of wheat yet. The ground is simply too hard without rainfall. In the nearby city of Herat, it is clear the scenes in Kabul's hospitals are repeated across the country. Dangerously wasted and thin babies are carried into the main hospital. Doctors Without Borders staff and fund the malnutrition ward, so these children will get some milk and care. But it's temporary. The homes these children came from remain blighted by poverty. Mahbabin brought in her only surviving twin baby. At 6 months old, she should not be this small. "We don't have enough food. I'm not able to breast feed," she tells me. "We feed her with formula, but I cannot afford it. "Few in this country can afford much more right now than the bare essentials. Millions cannot manage even that. As the world watches the fallout of Afghanistan's sudden collapse, the failure to build a sustainable, functioning state in the two decades since the 2001 invasion have never been more stark.
David Beasley: The international community the last 20 or 30 years has done a disastrous job here; 75 percent of the economy is based upon outside funding, I mean, hello? Coupled with the corruption that was allowed from year to year to year, why do you think the people didn't rise up when the Taliban were advancing? Because they were like, well, which one's worse here? And so you have got now an economy that was built on a house of cards, and everybody's to blame. Everybody shares in this blame. And if you don't feed the innocent victims of this chaos, well, you are talking about a lot of dead people.
Jane Ferguson: After surviving four decades of continuous conflict, hunger could take more innocent lives than war ever did. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.