Life under the Taliban: ‘what matters is that we’re hungry’- Newshubweek

Life under the Taliban: ‘what matters is that we’re hungry’
Written by Arindam

For Nurzia Rashid and her husband Rahatullah Qalandari, anxiety about Afghanistan’s Taliban regime is overshadowed by more immediate concerns: where to find the next meal for their six children.

Rashid and Qalandari, who worked as a nanny and security guard respectively at government ministries in the capital Kabul before the Taliban retook power last year, are unemployed. The family have cut back on meals, sold jewellery and depend on the charity of aid groups and neighbours.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether the Taliban’s return was a good thing or bad thing,” said Rashid, who does not support the Islamist group’s ultraconservative worldview. “What matters is that we’re hungry.”

Life for Afghanistan’s 40mn people has changed dramatically since the withdrawal of Nato troops and the victory of the Sunni militants one year ago, with a dramatic economic collapse leaving many Afghans much poorer and hungrier.

“I’m very worried about this next winter,” said Hsiao-Wei Lee, the UN World Food Programme’s deputy director for Afghanistan. The country was in urgent need of food aid as well as a wider programme of investment, she said: “We need the economy to breathe . . . so that [Afghans] are not in the same position as they are now.”

The Taliban’s return has been experienced very differently across regions, ethnic groups and genders. For some, the relative calm after the Islamists’ 20-year insurgency is a welcome opportunity to rebuild lives. Others live in fear of persecution or have lost hard-won freedoms such as the right to education for teenage girls.

Rahatullah Qalandari and his wife Nurzia Rashid depend on the charity of aid groups and neighbours after losing their jobs at ministries when the Taliban took power last year
Rahatullah Qalandari and his wife Nurzia Rashid depend on the charity of aid groups and neighbours after losing their jobs at ministries when the Taliban took power last year © Oriane Zerah/FT

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s before a US-led alliance invaded and ousted the regime in 2001, triggering their long campaign to reclaim power. While the collapse of the western-backed government last year curtailed the livelihoods of people such as Rashid and Qalandari overnight, some Afghans have welcomed the Taliban’s crackdown on corruption.

The fighting forced Haji Hamayon to flee his village in central Wardak province more than a decade ago, relocating to the outskirts of Kabul. The 56-year-old trader said the Taliban had tackled the bribe-taking that plagued his consumer imports business.

Like most Taliban, he is also from the country’s large Pashtun ethnic group and shares elements of the Islamists’ beliefs. His four wives and their daughters do not work and cover their faces in public.

“I’m so happy that I don’t even care whether I eat or not,” he said. “I love the Taliban because all those warlords, oppressors and murderers have gone.”

Haji Hamayon, 56, is a businessman living in Kabul
Businessman Haji Hamayon: under the Taliban ‘all those warlords, oppressors and murderers have gone’ © Oriane Zerah/FT

After the Taliban’s conquest, western powers tried to isolate the regime by imposing sanctions, seizing Afghanistan’s $9bn in foreign currency reserves and cutting off the aid that made up 75 per cent of the previous government’s budget.

Critics argue that this has only hurt ordinary Afghans while doing little to rein in the Taliban. The UN Development Programme estimated that gross domestic product fell 20 per cent in 2021 and will shrink a further 5 per cent this year. It estimates that acute food insecurity affects nearly 20mn people.

Column chart of Annual % change in GDP showing Afghanistan’s economy has been in freefall since the Taliban takeover

As poverty levels have increased, Taliban leaders have set about remaking Afghan society according to their strict interpretation of Islamic law, imposing draconian restrictions, ordering women to cover their faces and barring teenage girls from school.

The regime has been a disaster for Khatera and her 16-year-old daughter Hasanat. Khatera, 35, lost her teaching job at a Kabul school and Hasanat has not been in a classroom since last August.

“Before Hasanat was friendly, she was going out a lot, she was very open. Now she stays at home, has lost weight and gets headaches,” Khatera said. “We’re OK with wearing a niqab [a veil that leaves the eyes uncovered]. But they need to allow us back to schools and offices.”

The Taliban has repeatedly said since last August that it plans to reopen girls’ secondary schools and is preparing a new curriculum. But the delay has led many to fear they will repeat their 1990s policy of a systematic ban on girls’ education.

Women wearing burqas walk in Kabul with their children
Afghan families in Kabul: the Taliban has ordered women to cover their faces in public © Oriane Zerah/FT

Rights groups also accuse the regime of reviving the brutality that characterised their insurgency and previous rule. While the Taliban last year announced an amnesty for members of the former government and armed forces, international monitors have alleged multiple violations.

The UN alleged in a report last month that the Taliban carried out at least 160 extrajudicial killings, nearly 200 arbitrary arrests and tortured dozens of former military and government officials between last August and June.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, dismissed the allegations as propaganda. Anyone who “kills or arrests arbitrarily . . . will face sharia law”, he wrote on Twitter.

Terror attacks have killed around 700 civilians and wounded 1,400 between August and June, said the UN. These are mostly on the Hazara ethnic minority, attributable to the local affiliate of Isis, the Taliban’s Islamist rivals. The Taliban, who previously persecuted the Shia Muslims as heretics, say it is now their duty to protect minorities but many Hazara are deeply distrustful of the group. 

A children’s balloon vendor in north Kabul
A children’s balloon vendor struggles for sales in north Kabul © Oriane Zerah/FT

“There was discrimination under the previous regime, but now it’s more open,” said one 25-year-old Hazara man in Kabul.

For most Afghans, making ends meet remains the biggest challenge. Rajab Ali Yousefi, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul, said sales of staple foods had halved, forcing him into debt to keep paying his rent. “Business is going down and down,” he said. “The people who used to buy a bag of something will now buy half of it.”

While humanitarian assistance has helped to stave off mass starvation, aid agencies fear vulnerable Afghans will be unable to withstand further economic shocks.

“You can spend all day looking, and there won’t be any work,” Qalandari said. “Everything has collapsed and now we’re begging just for bread.”

Additional reporting by Fazelminallah Qazizai

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