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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Afghanistan: ‘Waiting for death’ – Doctors work without pay and medicines dwindle, a month into Taliban rule

The doctor in front of us has had multiple Taliban death threats – he hasn’t been paid for months and yet he’s still working at one of the government hospitals in Kabul. Many of his staff are too – for free.

About 20% of the staff have left, unable to carry on working and feeding their families without a salary.

But the others – including female health workers – are working for no pay as medicines gradually run out and equipment and drug supplies dwindle. Unless there are huge changes, this is simply unsustainable.

Nurses have not been paid for three months
Nurses have not been paid for three months

“Every morning when I come into hospital, I think maybe today the hospital will collapse,” a doctor, who wants to remain anonymous, said.

It’s as simple as that. Afghanistan is running on empty.

More than $9bn (£6.5bn) in foreign reserves have been frozen, mostly in American banks, and although foreign aid has been promised – a further €100m (£85.4m) in humanitarian aid pledged by the European Union recently – the airport’s still not open and the Afghans have yet to see any substantial financial help.

Huge queues outside a bank as the Sky News team talk to people waiting in line
Huge queues outside a bank as the Sky News team talks to people waiting in line

For a country that relies almost entirely on foreign aid, this is potentially catastrophic. Meanwhile, the Western international community has been dithering over how to help ordinary Afghans without bankrolling the Taliban itself.

It’s exactly a month since the Taliban walked into Kabul and the government collapsed.

In the hours which followed, the president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country along with the governor of the central bank and scores of other top officials as well as thousands of others fearing for their lives.

In their place, thousands of battle-hardened Islamist fighters came in from the battlefield to replace them. They’ve set up armed checkpoints, moved into the presidential palace and taken control of a cash economy with multiple crises compounded by persistent rumours of infighting at the top of the new Taliban leadership.

The rumours which have been swirling for days have resulted in shops in the centre of Kabul closing for fear of violence breaking out between rival supporters.

But we were stopped from filming the shuttered businesses by Taliban police who asked us aggressively why we were focussing on negative aspects of the new rulers.

“Go and see the shops which are open,” one of them told us. “Why are you just looking at these shut ones?”

Streets of shuttered shops in Afghanistan
Streets of shuttered shops in Afghanistan

We have indeed seen bustling markets open but noticed little business and many empty stalls doing no trade whatsoever.

The former Central Bank governor, Ajmal Ahmady, was quoted by the Atlantic Council as saying the Taliban had “sufficient revenues to run an insurgency but not to run a government”.

Thousands of people are waiting for hours every day outside banks across the capital trying to withdraw their own cash.

Huge queues of people waiting outside a bank in Afghanistan
Huge queues of people waiting outside a bank in Afghanistan

“It’s too difficult being alive in Afghanistan nowadays,” one man told us. “This is our own money. They took our money, they’ve got our money, but they do not want to pay us our own money.”

Another says angrily about the international community: “They froze the [country’s] money but this is a problem for the people not for the government.”

He goes on: “The government people are safe… but look at these people [pointing to the crowds outside the bank]… they do not have food at home… now.”

In the government hospitals that means doctors having to make heart-rending decisions about who to treat with the few drugs they have.

A 16-year-old boy is laying in the ICU of the hospital we visit. He’s in a coma, having been drugged by rapists who were sexually assaulting him.

A teenager drugged by rapists and abandoned by his parents is now in intensive care
A teenager drugged by rapists and abandoned by his parents is now in intensive care

His parents have abandoned him so he lays tethered to the gurney to stop his arms from thrashing around and blinks unseeing as the medics who are keeping him alive worry about how long they can eke out the drugs keeping him alive.

“He is just waiting for death,” the doctor said.

He has no idea how long he can keep the teenager alive – or how long he can continue to keep the hospital functioning.

“It is very depressing,” he said. “I’m an academic. I’m not a politician so I don’t get involved in these decisions, but I would say the international community should not have pulled out like this.

Two women sit on a bed in the women's ward of a hospital in Afghanistan
Two women sit on a bed in the women’s ward of a hospital in Afghanistan

“It’s not good to have left behind the Afghanistan people… you need to support Afghanistan. You need to support these doctors. You need to support me, I’m a professor.”

A few kilometres away, Taliban fighters are camped inside a huge mansion that once belonged to the notorious warlord Dostum, a man known for his brutality on the battlefield as well as his lavish lifestyle and who was once a former vice-president.

Sky News team talking to Taliban outside the entrance to Dostum's house
Sky News team talking to Taliban outside the entrance to Dostum’s house

The glitzy home has its own swimming pool, sauna and a tropical greenhouse. The Taliban has painted over the series of photographs of himself which the warlord had pinned up in the long entrance hall.

Instead, the Taliban’s religious slogans are now covering the pictures. The fighters sit, many cradling their new American weapons, in front of a row of aquariums filled with exotic fish.

Fishtanks in the entrance lobby
Fishtanks in the entrance lobby
Thrones in the entrance lobby
Thrones in the entrance lobby

One of the senior fighters told us: “They were very bad people who lived here… the nation was hungry and he [Dostum] made a castle for himself… and apart from this one, he had more castles… he could have given this money to the nation… and then there would be no poverty.”

There’s certainly continuing reports of widespread graft with the now Taliban-controlled central bank claiming it has seized $12.4m (£9m) in cash and gold from former top government officials.

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Merely seizing assets isn’t going to solve the nation’s economic problems – they’re a whole lot more complicated than that.

But the Taliban is intent on driving home, to the foreign media, in particular, the flaws it sees in the previous administration.

The Dostum mansion, it emphasises, is emblematic of the endemic corruption which is rife in Afghanistan. But one month on, for many of the people of Afghanistan, their misery and poverty is now just being dealt out to them by a lot of fresh faces at gunpoint.

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