Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Monday, 24 May 2010 14:22 UK

The harsh lives of Kabul's street children

Lyse Doucet meets some of the children trying to scratch out a living on the streets of Kabul

By Lyse Doucet
BBC Newsnight, Kabul

Her day begins with a knock on the door. At 6am in Kabul, 10-year-old Nargis goes house to house begging for bread on the richest of streets in the Afghan capital.

The neighbourhood of Sherpur, famous for its ostentatious mansions, lies at the end of the hill where she and her family live in one room in a mud brick house.

On the day I meet her, everyone who answers her knock says they have no bread to give.

Mohammed Yousef
Day by day, there are more and more street working children because refugees are still returning from Iran and Pakistan. And people are still being displaced by the war
Mohammed Yousef, Founder and Director of Aschiana, a refuge for street children

"Today, a little boy has been out ahead of me. He got it all," she explains in a whisper of a voice, before returning home without anything for her family to eat.

This waif, in a pink tunic trimmed with silver sparkles, is the breadwinner for a family of seven children.

In Afghan society sending Nargis' teenage sisters onto the streets would bring dishonour, and her younger siblings are too small.

Her father cannot or will not work. He is a drug addict.

So it is down to Nargis.

Survival skills

Nargis is just one of tens of thousands of street children in Kabul.

Born into a country torn by three decades of war and an economy fuelled by the opium trade, they lose their fathers to violence or vice.

By day, street kids weave impishly through vehicles stuck in Kabul's burgeoning traffic. They brandish everything from packets of gum, to tin cans wafting with incense, or a ragged bit of cloth to wipe your dusty windows.

By night, older teenagers are still hanging out at the main roundabouts, waving ribbons of cards for mobile telephones.

Children who should be at school are learning skills to survive on rough streets.

With an arsenal of tricks, from grinning to grabbing, they hustle to try to earn enough Afghani notes or one dollar bills to put food on their family's table.

And this army of children working on the streets is growing.

"Day by day, there are more and more street working children because refugees are still returning from Iran and Pakistan. And people are still being displaced by the war," says Engineer Mohammed Yousef, the founder and director of Aschiana, a refuge for street children.

With a reputation for peskiness, they are often ignored or shooed away. But kids grow up.

"When they become adults, they will learn more from the streets and they will not learn a lot of positive things," warns Engineer Yousef.

"The majority of children have talent, and if they have the opportunity to learn in a good environment they will use that talent in a positive way and become good people, otherwise they will use that talent in a negative way."

Vulnerable children can fall prey to older street boys who turn to crime. They are also targeted by criminal gangs who traffic people and drugs.

Underage drug addicts

In Afghanistan, the number of drug addicts is climbing. The latest figures show a steep rise to around 1.5 million people. A quarter are said to be women and children.

They include 13-year-old Omid. He tries to deny it, telling us he is no longer an addict, but his heavy-lidded eyes seem to give him away.

Then he admits that sniffing glue can make this hard life a little easier: "You feel as if you are a giant. You don't feel the weight on your shoulders."

Nargis (right) and classmates at Aschiana
Nargis is one of a few lucky street children getting some schooling

But a small percentage of street kids do get the chance to spend some time in school.

Aschiana, an Afghan charity, is one of the few centres where children can combine street work with a few hours in the classroom.

Older children can learn a trade, and all of the youngsters get a chance to play, and even dream.

Nargis is one of the lucky few, she sits eagerly in the front row on a long wooden bench, squeezed between other girls.

Bending over her notebook, pencilling neat lines of words in Dari, she escapes into a world of lessons with its promise of a better future.

For 14-year-old Mahfouz, who can cite the names of the world's top footballers, Aschiana gives him the chance to put aside his cares and join the boys learning some ball handling tricks on a small fenced football pitch.

But all too soon he is back on the street, washing cars to support his family.

Absentee fathers

Mahfouz has been working since he was seven. His father left his mother for another woman, leaving him as the main earner.

"He ruined our lives. We were poor and I had to work to earn our bread and butter," he says.

The place he has staked out along the pavement is a short walk from the site of a recent suicide bombing.

Mahfouz washes cars a short distance from the most recent bomb attack

"Now I don't feel any fear. I've been dealing with it most of my life," he says. "I'm not a scared little boy anymore."

But for all his adult airs, he is still only 14, something apparent when he speaks of his father's absence: "We have been deprived of a father's hug and this is a sad thing."

Nargis also regrets her father's ways, as does her mother:

"If we had money, we would be able to treat her father so I wouldn't have to send my daughter on to the streets." she says, a tear slipping down her cheek.

"When I see my mother crying, I get upset," says Nargis later, bravely adopting a tone that belies her young age. But it quickly gives way to a flood of tears.

At the end of each day, she climbs the last hill towards her home.

A torn cloth satchel with her notebook hangs over one shoulder. A large plastic bag of useful bits of rubbish which she has scavenged from a rubbish heap is slung over the other.

From birth, Afghan kids like Nargis shoulder all the worst legacies of war.

Watch Lyse Doucet's film in full on Newsnight on Monday 24 May 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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