Fatima* nurses her youngest child in her lap, as her two other children scamper around excitedly in the confines of their small living space. She’s too exhausted and consumed by worry to react.
Her family was displaced to another district around 100 kilometres away when conflict intensified in Bamyan province in Afghanistan’s mountainous Central Highlands region two years ago. By the time Fatima returned, she had divorced her husband, who was a drug addict, her mother and brother were living as refugees in Iran, and it was up to her alone to find a place to live with her children.
For the past eight months, that place has been a centuries-old cave in a hillside near where the ancient Bamyan Buddhas once stood – two monumental sixth-century sculptures that were destroyed in 2001. The cave is small but offers shelter from the bitter winter.
“We had nowhere else to go,” she explained. “We couldn’t afford to pay any rent.”
“There are scorpions in the summer … They come day and night.”
She has tried to make the place cosy with cushions, a carpet donated by a departing neighbour and a small stove but living there is “not easy”.
“There are scorpions; in the summer there are a lot and I’m scared for the children,” she said. “They come day and night.”
A monitoring team with UNHCR, the UN Refugee agency, found the family living in dire conditions in July 2022 and provided urgent cash assistance. Recently, Fatima received another grant to help her through the winter and some blankets. The family is being assessed for eligibility for other types of cash, livelihood and shelter assistance provided by UNHCR.
“Everything you see here, I have bought with the money UNHCR provided,” said Fatima, pointing around her. “If I didn’t get this help, my situation would be terrible.”
But without regular assistance or an income, she has had to make some agonizing decisions to ensure her family’s survival. At one of her lowest moments, before she received UNHCR’s help, she decided to give her youngest son – a twin – to her brother who was childless and now lives in Iran.
“At the time, I was in a terrible situation; it was hard to feed the kids and the children were sick. I thought this was my only solution. But now, as a mother, I cannot tell you how much I suffer. It was the worst decision I ever made,” she said. “Maybe my son has a better chance, a better future with my brother…but it pains me so much.”
She is not alone in having to make difficult decisions. People living in Bamyan province – the highest region in Afghanistan and one of the coldest – are used to harsh winters. But this year has been the coldest in over a decade, and the brutal weather has hit the poorest and most vulnerable like Fatima hard, coming as millions of Afghans are already suffering.
Aid agencies predict that a record 28.3 million people – some two-thirds of the population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2023, with 6 million of those already perilously close to famine.
With Afghanistan’s economy in freefall and food prices sky-rocketing, many desperate families have taken loans or borrowed from neighbours, and the slightest setback can plunge them deep into debt.
In the village of Surkhqul, 30-year-old mother-of-six Nekhbakhd and her family borrowed 600,000 Afghanis (US$6,730) for her father-in-law’s hospital treatment in Kabul before he died. They have also taken out a loan with a local bakery. Her husband is a casual labourer and often struggles to find work, especially during the lean winter season.
“I’m very worried because we have big loans and I don’t see how we can repay them,” she said.
The family received cash assistance from UNHCR two months ago, but their top priority was to buy food. “It meant we could eat. It also helped us buy heating materials like coal and wood. It was very important for us. But now the money is finished,” she said.
“I will never force my girls to marry young … but we might have to start thinking about sending the children to work, although right now they are too young.
“Now, my daughters collect animal manure to burn [in the stove] so we can stay warm. Sometimes we eat, but sometimes we go hungry and have to skip meals. We are struggling.”
“This winter is colder than other winters.”
UNHCR’s cash-based programmes can help the most vulnerable families avoid resorting to dangerous or harmful decisions; and give them the dignity and choice to prioritize their most urgent needs.
Mother-of-five Sara was two months pregnant when her husband died a year and a half ago. She now depends on charitable assistance and UNHCR for her family’s survival. Seasonal support provided by the agency meant that she was able to buy a traditional bukhari – a wood-burning stove, used for cooking and heating, and around which the whole family sleep at night in their one room.
“This winter is colder than other winters. But now we have this stove, we have charcoal and wood and we are all warm.
“If the help from UNHCR hadn’t arrived it would be so difficult. I would have to beg from others in the community. UNHCR help is a lifeline,” she said.