Afghan children succumb to harsh winter weather

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Displaced Afghans in in Camp Qambar‏ on the outskirts of Kabul
Image caption,
Many displaced children face a struggle to survive this winter

For nearly a week Taj Mohammad has not had time to grieve for his three-year-old son.

Janan had tottered out of the mud shelter when Mr Mohammad had gone in search of firewood, his daily routine for the past five winters.

The toddler was barefoot and did not have enough clothing for the freezing temperatures outside.

"When Janan returned, he had a high fever. We tried to keep him warm with whatever little clothes we have. But he died in the evening," Mr Mohammad said.

Bare essentials

Janan was among about 10,000 displaced people, mostly from Helmand province, who live at the Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul.

Image caption,
Taj Mohammad has lost a son and an uncle in the cold weather

Last winter, more than 100 children died in the cold weather in the numerous refugee camps that surround the Afghan capital. Twenty-six of them died in the same camp where Janan lived.

Mr Mohammad's small mud shelter - covered only with a tattered tarpaulin roof - is typical of the conditions that families in the camps have to endure.

The small dingy room has no mattress or cushions.

Mr Mohammad points to the bare essentials - a bucket, a half-full tin of flour and an empty small bag of charcoal - and then signals towards his eight children huddled in a corner to keep warm.

"Last night, I had no food," he said. "I swear to you, we did not eat. There are a lot of people in the camp who don't have food."

Mr Mohammad says that he did not have time to mourn for his son or his uncle who also died as a result of the cold a few days ago.

"I have to worry about those who are alive," he says pointing to his children. "We need help. If help doesn't come, more children will die."

Qambar's proximity to Kabul - the power centre of Afghanistan - has once again raised questions over the competence of the government to protect its people.

The camp is less than 20km (12 miles) from the presidential palace, the US embassy, Nato headquarters and the offices of international organisations overseeing billions of dollars in aid to the country.

But Minister of Refugees and Repatriations Jamaher Anwari says the government is doing all it can to help.

"For the last month there has been regular distribution of winter supplies in these camps," Mr Anwari says.

The minister rejects reports that the deaths in Qambar were due to a lack of fuel, food or clothing.

"Janan may have died because of ill health," he says.

Lives threatened

Afghanistan has received $58bn (£36bn) in aid over the past 10 years, at least $3.5bn (£2.17bn) of which was in humanitarian aid.

Image caption,
Children in Qambar camp have to fend off the cold and constant hunger

According to the UN refugee agency, there are 460,000 internally displaced people in the country. Nearly 35,000 of these are in 54 camps in the Kabul area.

The UN accepts there are problems in getting aid to those most in need.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Protection Officer Douglas Di Salvo told the BBC that the country continues to be challenged by conflict, poverty and lack of development.

He said that the most vulnerable Afghan citizens are living on the edge of survival - their lives threatened by a lack of heating and food.

Mr Mohammad and his family are now trying to come to terms with this harsh reality.

But it is a difficult and painful struggle.

Recently the people of Camp Qambar had to endure another tragedy - a four-year-old girl named Sabeah from Helmand province died as the cold weather bit.

She was the second child to die in the space of a week.

"We are relying on God and good luck to survive this winter," Mr Mohammad said ruefully.