Kabul, Afghanistan's 28,000 street children: aid groups swamped

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 4 May 1998 06:53:49 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - May 3, 1998


In the city torn by civil war, they try to eke out a living. Aid
groups can't handle the numbers.

By Kathy Gannon

KABUL, Afghanistan -- At age 10, Khalilullah daydreams of becoming a
doctor. His boss, Mohammed Raza, 15, laughs at the idea there might be
a good future in Afghanistan.

"This country is only fighting," said Raza, who oversees four younger
boys who spend their days weaving carpets.

Raza and his crew are among the tens of thousands of children trying
to eke out livings in Afghanistan's shattered capital. They weave
carpets, shine shoes, beg, whatever they can to earn a little money.

One international aid group estimates at least 28,000 children are
living on the streets.

Most of them wander the city, their hands outstretched asking for
baksheesh, or money. Outside stores, small children, some barely 5
years old, ask for chocolate.

Several aid groups have set up drop-in centers, where street children
can get a meal and a couple of hours of schooling. But together they
barely handle 3,000 children.

"The problem is so big. . . . But we haven't enough money to help them
all," says Colin Tucker of Terre des Hommes, a group devoted to
helping children in crisis.

For Raza and his carpet-weaving crew, their workplace is a corner of
an alley. To one side is a rancid garbage dump and to the other a
muddy, rocket-blasted street.

The boys kneel on a soiled piece of green carpet, weaving strand after
strand of wool, their feet warmed by ragged socks and mud-caked

Raza has been on the job since he was 9. He earns 300,000 Afghanis for
every square yard of carpet his young crew weaves. That's roughly $10.
>From that he has to pay the weavers.

Ten-year-old Mubashir has been on the job 15 days and hasn't been paid
yet. His tiny fingers are raw from the wool and red from the cold.

Mubashir says he thinks he would like to stop working and go to
school, but "my father is dead -- a rocket killed him -- and my mother
is too old."

Cynical and street-smart, Raza can neither read nor write. He went to
school for three years, back when the communists were still in power
in Kabul and fighting in the civil war was away from the capital.

A loose alliance of Islamic groups drove the Marxists from power six
years ago. Then they turned their guns on each other, devastating
Kabul in years of fighting that killed 50,000 people and maimed tens
of thousands. Entire neighborhoods are littered with land mines and
unexploded rockets and artillery shells.

The city's schools were closed, except for occasional attempts to
reopen them. Fighting between rival factions would resume and
invariably a rocket would hit a school, like the one in 1995 that
killed 10 teachers who were sipping tea at Kabul University.

Schools were open again just before the Taliban religious army seized
Kabul in September 1996. But the Taliban shut them, saying the
curriculum was not in keeping with strict Islamic teaching.

In recent months the Taliban has allowed some schools to reopen -- but
only for boys. Under the religious army's rule, girls have been
banished from school and women forced off the job.

Even for boys, there are few official schools open.

International aid workers say there are more than 160 "home" schools,
set up by out-of-work teachers -- most of them women. Aid groups are
trying to help those schools by providing textbooks, paper and some

Aid workers say children's health needs also are enormous.

"Children are dying, and they don't need to be dying," said David
Southall, a British pediatrician with Child Advocacy International.

At Kabul's only children's hospital, an average of six children die
each day, the hospital administrator, Mohammed Hussein, said.

In the nearby nursery, many newborns die because there are no working
incubators or oxygen.

Hussein gestures toward the hospital's six incubators -- the glass
broken, wires hanging limply by the side, soiled mattresses torn.

"We got those from India -- 32 years ago," he said.


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