Aid groups struggle to continue humanitarian aid for starving, injured Afghans

Winter has come to Afghanistan, and brought with it a skyrocketing need for aid to millions of desperate Afghans. International humanitarian groups are working to stave off widespread hunger, while providing other services under a Taliban regime widely considered a pariah. From Kabul, and with the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Winter has come to Afghanistan, and with it skyrocketing need for aid to millions of desperate Afghans.

    International humanitarian groups are working to stave off widespread hunger, while providing other services under a Taliban regime widely considered a pariah.

    From Kabul, and with the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It could be easy to mistake Kabul's Red Cross center for a depressing place. But, instead, it's one of the most heartening in the Afghan capital, a place of hope for a country and a people facing enormous challenges.

    Here, the war wounded and sick learn to walk again, soldier, child, Talib, each fighting their own personal battle. Remarkably, the center makes high-quality free prosthetics in its own factory staffed entirely by former patients.

    Dr. Roberto Cairo, who now runs the center, has worked here for 30 years. In that time, he has helped countless disabled Afghans live better lives.

    Dr. Roberto Cairo, International Committee of the Red Cross: And there is a moment when they fit the prosthesis the first time, it's a very difficult moment, because they understand they have hope to be able to walk again, and they will, but not in the same way.

    It's hard. It's tough. And some people, especially those with double amputation, sometimes, they give up.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Not 6-year-old Haibatullah. It has been only six months since the war stole his right leg, and today marks the boy's first day walking without crutches.

    Finding his balance on the new prosthetic takes practice, but his father is always there for him.

    Abdullah Khan says Haibatullah was playing in the street when shrapnel hit him.

  • Abdullah Khan, Father (through translator):

    I was at work and got a call to tell me he was injured. When I came home, he was in the hospital and very seriously injured. He was playing at the front of the house.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For a parent in a country with no safety net, the fear felt for a disabled child's future can be crushing. Organizations that can help in the absence of the state here are a lifeline.

  • Abdullah Khan (through translator):

    This place is very important. It's good we can bring in him here because now he will be able to walk and rely on himself. If this wasn't here, he could have been disabled his whole life, having to stay at home.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Cairo is the longest-serving international aid worker in Afghanistan. The new Taliban government is the fifth regime to have come to power in his time here. He's undeterred. And when the fighters swept into town, he was here, continuing his work.

  • Dr. Roberto Cairo:

    The humanitarian organizations, they have to stay. They have to work. If they leave, who stays?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Yet he is, to some extent, the exception. When the government collapsed and the Taliban seized power in August, aid agencies and international aid workers largely left the country.

    The Taliban has attacked, kidnapped and killed both Afghan and international aid workers throughout the war, rarely respecting their impartiality and noncombatant status. For the charities still working on the ground, securing the safety of their staff is still a major concern.

    They need the Taliban's cooperation to be able to work in the country, something the World Food Program's country director, Mary McGroarty, says is, so far, happening.

    What's it like working with the Taliban?

  • Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Afghanistan Country Director, World Food Program:

    They are not a homogeneous group.

    I have met — we have to engage with them. We need access to the people in need. It's based on the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, operational independence and, of course, humanity. They have to deal with us. We have to deal with them if we want to reach the people in need. And that's really our main goal.

    They are giving us access. They are facilitating the access. But still — it's — we are only, what, 2.5 months into the — our new reality of what Afghanistan is. So we are not sure how it's going to go going forward.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Taliban insists it is allowing the equitable distribution of aid and welcomes international organizations helping alleviate hunger.

  • Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban Spokesman (through translator):

    We are in touch with international NGOs. We attracted their assistance, and lots of aid has arrived. And it is being distributed transparently.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    While 14 million Afghans face famine as a result of the economic collapse, a major issue impeding support for them are sanctions against the Taliban. They are still considered a terrorist group by most governments around the world.

    Sending them money to distribute would not only break the sanctions, but help the group consolidate power. Before the collapse of the Afghan government, much funding was directed through the authorities in Kabul, helping them pay for things like salaries for school teachers and doctors.

    But international aid to the government of Afghanistan, now controlled by the Taliban, is developmental aid. Humanitarian aid is separate. Agencies like the World Food Program stress that their food and money goes directly to the people, bypassing authorities.

  • Mary-Ellen McGroarty:

    The humanitarian financial pipeline is very different from the on-budget support. The humanitarian funding comes directly to organizations like WFP, FAO, UNICEF.

    So we work directly with the communities. We work with a whole host of NGOs to get aid directly out to the people, like these people here, and we don't go through the authorities. And I think it's important for the international community to remember that you can support the humanitarian effort, which must come now, independently of the politics.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Sending the money could also end up sacrificing a vital source of leverage over the Taliban, to pressure them into softening some of the most repressive elements of their rule. Girls over 14 are not able to access education fully, and protests or any dissent is harshly put down.

    But the WFP says the 14 million people right now who need emergency food to prevent widespread starvation could rise to 22 million in the next few months.

    In his decades on the ground in Kabul, Dr. Cairo has never seen such widespread desperation.

  • Dr. Roberto Cairo:

    Definitely, people should not waste time. Afghanistan must be helped now. The rest will come later, but now, especially at the beginning of the winter, something has to be done.

    Hospitals are running without the drugs. People have no salaries. They have no food. Every day, I receive so many patients coming. And after the physical rehabilitation, they come and say: Please help me, because I have nothing at all. I lost the job. I don't have any future in front of me.

    So this is something that the international community should look at now. Forget the rest.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    While Afghanistan continues to struggle to cope with the collapse of its government and the international isolation of living under Taliban rule, desperate efforts to keep millions from the worst suffering continue.

    Both Afghans and those remaining international professionals continue to fight on, in the face of enormous challenges.

    How do you keep going all these years despite the setbacks?

  • Dr. Roberto Cairo:

    The work. The work is keeping me. It's the best work in the world. And it's so rewarding, what we are doing. You see people coming here crawling, sometimes crawling, and they leave walking again with dignity.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Afghanistan has been embraced, occupied and then abandoned by the wider world before. This time, its people find themselves struggling to survive the collapse of U.S.-led efforts there. While the humanitarian crisis grows, and the world struggles to decide how to react, time is running out.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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