Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Saturday, 3 January 2009

Afghanistan's continuing misery

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Kabul

Children in Paghman, Afghanistan
Continuing poverty means many children are forced to work
Walking through central Kabul one day, I felt a little tug at the back of my thick winter coat.

I turned and looked down and saw a little girl with a serious face asking for money.

She was about five years old, dressed in old unwashed clothes and wearing plastic flip-flops.

I gave her the equivalent of $1 (0.70).

Her face lit up with a luminous smile of delight.

"Tashakur, tashakur [thank you, thank you]," she said and skipped off back down the street to her mother, turning several times and waving and shouting tashakur again and again.

I met more children in Paghman, a village in the Kabul suburbs.

They were young boys rushing about in a small park, playing hide and seek, crouching down behind concrete benches or hiding behind trees and letting out yelps of pleasure when they narrowly avoided being caught.

Four of them spotted me and came over and asked me to take a photograph. I showed them the image on the screen on my camera. "Taskakur, tashakur."

Later, as the sun sank behind a mountain covered with fresh snow, the same boys were shivering.

Local resentment

Thousands of foreign troops have been in Afghanistan since the Americans drove the Taleban away after the 11 September attacks on the US in 2001.

Truck drivers in Afghanistan
Truck drivers working for the US military face frequent dangers
"What have they done for us all this time?" Hassan, 18, demanded of me. "I can't even get a job."

And then his eyes filled with tears of frustration and anger.

"Why does it have to be like this?" he asked. "Why is my country so miserable?"

On the road into Kabul from Jalalabad - on the dangerous route from Pakistan and the Khyber Pass - I sat on a woven plastic mat drinking green tea from glass cups with a group of lorry drivers.

They carry containers with supplies and equipment for the US military.

They told me they had been shot at often. One of their friends had been shot dead.

But despite working for the Americans, these drivers have no protection, no military escort.

They laughed and joked as they talked.

"How do you manage to be so cheerful?" I asked.

"We are happy because we made it, because we're still alive," they replied.

Teacher shortages

The international forces say they have significantly improved life for most Afghans since 2001

A girl in a Kabul school
Since the fall of the Taleban about 35% of girls now go to school

There are dozens of new roads, for example. And, according to the British Government, millions of children have been enrolled in new or reconstructed schools.

But many of the main avenues in and out of Kabul - and some of the wide streets near the city centre - are pitted with potholes and turn into rough tracks with clouds of dust billowing into homes and shops whenever a vehicle passes.

And those schools? Children enrolled in school is not the same as children turning up for class.

Numerous schools are padlocked and empty.

Many parents are afraid to let their children - especially their daughters - go to school amid reports of schoolgirls being attacked by the Taleban, with acid thrown in their faces.

And aid workers in Afghanistan say many of the new schools do not have one very basic requirement - teachers.

Bribery

Afghanistan is also riddled with corruption.

The number of children who die under the age of five is still one of the highest in the world

A British MP and former junior foreign minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, Kim Howells, recently complained that the country is "corrupt from top to bottom", and suggested the British Government should stop treating President Karzai's government with kid gloves.

A Kabul doctor, Abdel Hakim, told me Kim Howells was right. I asked him if he had encountered corruption himself.

"Oh yes," he replied, "simply to get a job in a hospital or at the health ministry, I have to pay a shirini, a sweetener."

And everyone I met - everyone - said they would not vote for Hamid Karzai at the elections later this year.

'Kabuli Kid'

Less than two hours away from Kabul by plane, I had a stopover in Dubai.

Bright lights, dozens of high-rise office blocks, smart beach hotels and impressive eight-lane motorways streaming with opulent cars.

But then, unexpectedly, I was back in the Afghan capital.

One of the films showing at the Dubai International Film Festival was Kabuli Kid, made on location in Kabul.

It is a drama, but it is so authentic it feels like a documentary.

It is about a taxi driver who stops for a woman carrying a baby. She pays up front. She gets out, abandoning her sleeping child on the back seat.

The driver does not notice until his next fare asks him: "Is this your son?"

It is a harrowing and authentic illustration of life in a nation where many babies still do not survive for long.

Despite so-called international assistance for more than seven years now, the number of children who die under the age of five is still one of the highest in the world.

And many of those who survive walk the streets of Kabul tugging at coats begging for money.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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