17/05/2013 – Tucked behind a truck depot, the Dewan Begi Settlement, in the Western part of Kabul, is a maze of tents, tarpaulin sheets and ricketty fences. Children in tatters can be seen playing around in the mud, while women come and go between their makeshift houses and the only two water pumps to which this slum of some 190 families has access to. This is only one of over fifty Kabul Informal Settlements (KIS), as they are called, which have popped up in the Afghan capital over the past decade or so. Overall, some 30 000 people – including a vast majority of children – live in these illegal enclaves, deprived of basic public services, facing constant threats of eviction, and forced to live in freezing temperatures without solid walls around them for almost half the year.
“We came to Kabul about ten years ago, after returning from Pakistan where we had gone as refugees because of the conflict”, explains Khaesta Khan, 50, sitting in his carpeted tent, surrounded by his children. The family belongs to the Kochi community, a minority ethnic group who used to make a living as nomad shepherds. Due to the rising insecurity across the country, this traditional lifestyle has now become untenable, and most have had to settle down in towns. Khaesta’s family therefore lives from doing petty jobs: the men offer car accessories to commuters at traffic junctions, while the women sell bangles imported from neighbouring Pakistan. Barely enough to make ends meet.
“Life here is hard, particularly in the winter”, explains Khaesta’s wife, Farzana. “Since there is no flooring and the soil is always humid, if you sleep directly on the floor you are sure to freeze to death”. This is precisely what happened during the winter of 2011-2012, which was particularly severe: over a 100 children died of the cold in the KIS. This winter, however, the mortality rate has come down massively, thanks in part to the distribution of “cold weather packages” provided by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through ECHO-funding.
Every single household in the KIS received a customized kit to help them withstand the bitter cold. Meant for a family of six (2 adults, 1 toddler and 3 school-aged children), this kit included sweaters, warm jackets, shawls, socks, gloves, boots, hats, and a baby blanket. “Last year two kids died here, this year fortunately there were none”, says Pusthana, from the Parwane Do Settlement.
Already distributed over the past years, the content of the life-saving winter kit was enhanced this year, with a particular focus on children’s needs. It comes in addition to fuel (distributed three times throughout the winter), food rations and an “all weather package” which comprises of three blankets, two plastic sheets, two jerry-cans, a kitchen set, a bucket and six bars of soap. “The combination of all these items is very important, comments Pusthana, sitting in front of her mud hut, in which old car windows have been incrusted into the walls to let in some light. What would be the use of having warm clothes if we didn’t have the plastic sheeting to keep the rain from coming through the roof?”.
As the winter comes to an end, all the humanitarian agencies involved in channelling aid to the KIS agree that the content of the kits was better adapted this year, and their distribution better organized. “One undeniable success is that there was better coordination between agencies, which enabled a full coverage of the KIS and avoided duplication in distribution”, comments Douglas DiSalvo from UNHCR, who also assisted some 35000 internally-displaced people families in the rest of the country with the same package. This coordination effort was possible thanks in part to ECHO, who funded UNCHR and Solidarités International to co-lead the new “KIS Task Force”.
A long-term solution to the hardships faced by those in the KIS, however, still remains elusive as all of these slums stand on government or private land. “The owner came again this week, asking us to leave”, confides Pushthana’s son, Harun, whose settlement now stands surrounded by massive construction sites. “But we have nowhere to go, and we need to stay in Kabul if we want to find some work”.
By Pierre Prakash
ECHO’s Regional Information Officer in New Delhi