Cholera patients at Musa Qula District Hospital on July 22, 2022 in Helmand province, Afghanistan (AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)
The overcrowded infirmaries of the run-down Musa Qula district hospital in southern Afghanistan are just one of the symbols of the dramatic humanitarian crisis that is gripping the country a year after the Taliban returned to power.
Last month, this hospital in Helmand province was forced to close except for people suspected of being infected with cholera.
The infirmary soon filled with apathetic patients, IV needles stuck in their wrists.
Although the clinic does not have the equipment to test for cholera, around 550 patients came within a few days.
“It’s very difficult,” Ehsanullah Rodi, the head of the exhausted hospital, who has been sleeping just five hours a day since the influx of patients, told AFP.
“We didn’t see that last year or before that,” he said.
The Taliban took power in Afghanistan on August 15 after US-led foreign forces hastily withdrew. While violence has since declined significantly, the humanitarian crisis in the country has rapidly worsened.
– “No dry bread” –
Poverty, worst in the country’s south, has reached desperate levels, exacerbated by drought and rising prices since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Malnourished children at Boost Hospital, jointly run by the Afghan Ministry of Health and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), on July 21, 2022 in Lashkar Gad, Helmand province, Afghanistan (AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)
“Since the emirate (Taliban) came to power, we can’t even find oil,” laments a woman on a hospital bed in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, next to her grandchild, six-month-old, who is malnourished.
“The poor are crushed under their feet,” adds this 35-year-old woman of the Taliban, her face hidden behind a veil.
Her grandson is being treated for the fifth time at Boost Hospital, a maze of buildings run jointly by the Afghan Ministry of Health and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“We can’t even find dry bread,” regrets Breshna, the mother of another patient. “We haven’t had anything to eat for three or four days.”
The employees “have no rest,” adds Homeira Nowrozi, the deputy head of nursing.
A nurse prepares baby food for malnourished children at Boost Hospital in Lashkar Gad, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 21, 2022 (AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)
“We have many patients who arrive in critical condition,” she says, because the parents couldn’t come earlier.
“We don’t know how many deaths (…) we have in the districts” because many people “don’t come to the hospital,” adds Homeira Nowrozi, who tries to be heard over the cries of the babies.
– cuts in humanitarian aid –
Afghanistan’s economic hardship began long before the Taliban took over, but it brought the country of 38 million people to the brink of collapse.
The entrance to Musa Qala District Hospital, where cholera patients are treated, on July 22, 2022 in Helmand province, Afghanistan ( AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA )
The United States froze $7 billion in central bank balances, the banking sector collapsed, and foreign aid, which accounted for 45% of the country’s GDP, suddenly ground to a halt.
“How do you bring aid to a country whose government you don’t recognize?” asks Roxanna Shapour of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).
However, humanitarian aid in the face of crises like the June earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless is easy because it is “non-political, vital aid”.
Funds are also flown in for food aid and health care. But helping long-term projects is more complex.
“If you come into the country and say, ‘I’m going to pay all the teachers’ salaries,’ that’s fine,” Roxanna Shapour said.
“So what will the Taliban do with the money they don’t spend on teachers’ salaries?”
In Musa Qala, the economy hardly seems to survive on repairing motorcycles, selling poultry carcasses and energy drinks kept lukewarm in filthy freezers.
– “Government clothes too big” –
The city, which witnessed some of the bloodiest chapters of the 2001-2021 war, is connected to Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, by a path that winds through a dry riverbed fringed by craggy rocks.
The entrance to Musa Qala district hospital on July 22, 2022 in Helmand province, Afghanistan ( AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA )
The road continues further south at Sangin where the mud walls have been so damaged by artillery fire that they are collapsing.
“Now we can go to the hospital day and night,” said Maimana, whose eight-year-old daughter Asia is being treated at Musa Qala.
“There used to be fighting and mines, the roads were closed,” she recalls.
The influx of new patients means there is “less space” and “less staff and therefore difficulties,” Helmand public health director Sayed Ahmad analyzes with AFP.
Nonetheless, the soft-spoken doctor, whose desk is lined with medical books, insists that “the overall situation is better” than under the previous government, where corruption was rampant.
The Taliban flag now flies openly in Helmand, planted on buildings riddled with bullets.
After two decades of coveting control of the country, the Taliban are ruling the nation at its most ruined.
“Government clothing is too big for them,” said a man from Lashkar Gah who wished to remain anonymous.