It was a little past three in the afternoon, and I found myself standing on a bustling street corner in Kabul City, waiting for someone. To my right, a group of three women -two of them had all-covering burqas and one’s face could be seen- sat just a few steps away from a bakery, patiently anticipating the arrival of someone who could offer them some assistance.
As I observed the women, I noticed one of them — the one whose face was visible — suddenly began to curse at another woman who was wearing a black head-to-toe burqa. I couldn’t help but think that the two women were engaged in a dispute over where to sit. The woman who was cursing repeatedly declared, “The bread you borrowed yesterday, I will take it back today. You have to give it back,” while the second woman’s voice was muffled by the burqa that covered her face. Soon after, the person I had been waiting for arrived and we left the scene together.
As we made our way towards our destination, my thoughts kept drifting back to the two women and their heated exchange. I found myself fixated on the woman who had been angry and cursing but particularly couldn’t shake the memory of the other woman, the recipient of the curse, who had responded with such softness and understanding. Later on, as we walked back along the same route, I stopped by the bakery near where the women had been sitting earlier and purchased some bread to offer them.
I approached the group and handed the loaves to the recipient of the curse, asking her to divide them amongst the group. She took the loaves of bread from me and proceeded to divide them among the three of them. She placed five loaves in front of the cursing woman, handed three to the other woman, and kept one for herself. I was curious about the reasoning behind the way the woman had distributed the bread, so I asked her. “I arrived late yesterday,” she explained to me. “Upon leaving for home, I realized that I had got only three loaves of bread for the family of six. I had to borrow bread from this woman (pointing to the woman whose face was visible).”
When I asked for her name, she appeared surprised, asking “What do you need my name for?” I explained that I intended to write an article featuring her and two other women. Without uttering a word, she identified herself as Sakina. After a brief pause, she shared her thoughts, “Hunger is worse than everything. I have to endure insults from both men and women, friends and strangers alike, just to take a piece of bread home.”
Sakina, a 42-year-old woman, has known only poverty and hardship throughout her life. Four years ago, tragedy struck when she lost her young son, a driver, in a devastating car accident. Her husband passed away a year ago, compounding her already profound grief. As she speaks about her son, her voice hoarsens under the burqa. “Misery has been my constant companion,” she splutters, tears streaming down her face. “I’ve never known a truly happy day in my life. My son had just started to work to put food on our table, but God took him from us.” After a long pause, she speaks softly, almost to herself, “Perhaps I don’t deserve more than what God has given me.”
As Sakina finishes speaking, the woman whose face was visible turns to Sakina and tells her with a look of kindness: “Sister, you know that I too have many children. If not for them, I would not have asked you to give me back borrowed bread. Yesterday, that you took those three loaves of bread, I swear to God, my children had nothing to eat today.”
Saleha, who had been in a heated argument with Sakina just moments ago, now expressed sympathy towards her. “You’re not the only one who has experienced misfortune,” she says. “Nobody is truly happy these days. The only difference is that those who have their daily bread are a little better off than the rest of us.”
Saleha, who is several years older than Sakina, has fingers that are crooked from years of hard labor and laundry. She explains that her back is so stiff that she can barely bend it, yet she has to sit on the sidewalk for hours to provide bread for her daughter and grandchildren. “I might be 55 years old,” she says. “My first husband was killed during the wars between political jihadist parties. After his death, I was left with a daughter and became a widow. In order to avoid starvation, I had to marry an elderly man who, by God’s grace, blessed me with two daughters. But I never had a son.” Saleha’s second husband also passed away a few years ago.
As she recounts the hardships she has endured during this time, there is no hint of sadness in her voice or on her face. It’s as if she has become numb to the past and is solely focused on providing for her daughters and grandchildren. When I inquired about her grandchildren and why there were living with her, she explained, “When my daughter grew up, I married her off so that I would have a son-in-law, if not a son. But after a while, I realized that my son-in-law was an addict who forced my daughter into doing terrible and immoral things to provide his needed heroin and alcohol. So, I brought my daughter and three grandchildren back to live with me. I no longer know anything about my son-in-law.”
Working long hours and doing laundry for a living, Saleha developed rheumatism and was unable to seek treatment in time. As a result, her fingers are now crooked and she struggles to hold a spoon while eating. “I used to work a lot. Until I had back pain and bone pain, I didn’t reach out to anyone for help,” Saleha says. “But the pain gradually took me down. At first, I didn’t pay attention. Then I didn’t have the financial ability to treat it, as well as it was too late for treatment. Now I can hardly eat with my hands.”
Saleha and Sakina are just two examples of the hundreds of thousands of women in Kabul who are struggling to keep themselves and their families alive. Since the Taliban seized control of the country, the city has been inundated with women and children begging for survival. They queue up outside bakeries hoping someone will buy them dry bread, and in restaurants, they approach customers every minute asking for a few Afghanis to feed their families. Beggars can be seen everywhere — in supermarkets, clothing stores, hospitals, and on the streets and alleys.
On some days, during my three-hour commute in Kabul, I have counted at least 150 women, children, and elderly men asking for help with a loaf of bread or the price of it, which is currently 10 Afghanis per loaf. That means one may encounter a hungry person nearly every minute, each of them reaching out to passers-by for help. This level of need is a stark reminder of the terrible hunger crisis that people in Kabul are facing each day.