Jan 7, 2009

Lifestyle - Little comfort in Afghan cold

Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

On a cold Kabul evening, Musafir Khan is busy building the fire in his one-room house.

Like hundreds of other Afghan refugees he lives in an abandoned government building.

This father-of-six from eastern Afghanistan finally manages to light the fire to try to prevent his six children from coughing as the temperature drops below zero.

''I can't afford firewood, so we collect paper and wood from people and live with that," he says.

Mr Khan and his family are among the millions in Afghanistan who greatly fear the onset of winter.

In a country characterised by damaged infrastructure, a lack of access to clean drinking water, irregular electrical supplies and rampant poverty, the winter months make the already hard lives of the local Afghans even more of an endurance.

Temperatures in parts of the country plummet to -25C, heavy snowfalls make many roads impassable and every year dozens of Afghans freeze to death in their remote villages in mountainous valleys but also in big cities including the capital Kabul.


Many homes lack basic heating and many Afghans simply do not have enough clothes to keep them warm.

Forecasts from the Afghan meteorological authority predict that this year may offer some respite, with the winter expected not to be as cold as previous years.
But international aid agencies are already preparing for the next few months.

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR plans to help 200,000 people across the country, including nearly 2,000 families in Kabul, providing them with items such as winter jackets and tents.

According to the Afghan health ministry, almost six million people - most of them children - are vulnerable during the winter.

But the ministry spokesman, Dr Abdullah Fahim, insists that the government is prepared, having stocked enough medicine for respiratory illnesses and other winter diseases.

Dr Fahim says the ministry also has 129 mobile medical teams to assist rural communities.

In a country where urban electricity is only available intermittently, wood, gas and other fuels become the sources of heating.

Many of the Afghans lucky enough to be able to heat their homes use a bukhari - a metal Afghan stove.

Low wages

On Kochi Halabi Sazi street in Kabul, shops are heavily stocked with these stoves, waiting for buyers.

But many of the shopkeepers say the stoves are simply not selling, perhaps an indication that many ordinary Afghans have failed to see their lives improve, despite seven years of international assistance.

Shopkeeper Mohammad Hassan, 45, says this winter is the worst in his 23 years of business.
"This time last year I had no bukharis left. This year my shop is full," he says, glancing over at the packed shop.

"People are poor, salaries are low and no-one wants to pay 1,000 Afghanis ($20)," he says.

"The nights are very cold but people have no other way but to sleep without heating."

This is a view shared by many Afghans. On a freezing bus in Kabul - where breaths steam up the windows - people commuting to work are quick to complain.

''There is no shortage of fuel, wood or gas but if you get paid $70 a month, how can you survive in this country?" one man asks.

In spite of all the difficulties, Afghans manage as best they can - taking small mercies from a brutal time of year.

One morning, Haji Dadu, 69, is sitting outside his mud house, enjoying the glow of the winter sun.

"It's freezing inside and outside - where else can I go?" he asks.

"I have many children and they cry because it's very cold. We fear it will get worse once it snows.''

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