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For many Afghans, winter is forcing a cruel choice of whether to eat or stay warm

As 2022 begins, most people in Afghanistan don't have enough food to eat. Millions are facing hunger and starvation amid a multiyear drought and an economic crash following the Taliban takeover in August. The onset of winter has only made things worse.

Shelley Thakral, the World Food Program spokesperson for Afghanistan, says more than half the population — some 23 million Afghans — are facing what the WFP calls extreme levels of hunger. Malnutrition is soaring. Food prices have risen. And the WFP's surveys show the overwhelming majority of Afghans, 98% of the population, lack enough food to eat. Many are surviving on limited diets with less fresh vegetables, dairy or meat – or none at all.

Afghanistan has seen other hunger emergencies over the years — in some areas, people two decades ago were so desperate that they resorted to eating grass. But now, for the first time, there is a "new urban class of hungry people," Thakral says. Afghans who've lost their jobs and never imagined they'd go hungry are scrounging and standing in line for food aid.

Thakral says the WFP is boosting its distribution of food rations such as wheat, flour, oil, salt and pulses and needs $2.6 billion, or $220 million per month, to keep Afghans fed in the year ahead. She spoke with NPR in Islamabad on the eve of her return to Kabul after a short break. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Give us a sense of the scope of the hunger crisis in Afghanistan now.

We're going into 2022 looking at this massive figure of 23 million people who are food insecure. And what we've seen in 2021 is a country that's been devastated by drought, the worst drought in 30 years — so that's really sapped livelihoods in rural areas. Conflict that's been raging and ongoing has forced migration. And the economic crisis, which has just slipped further and further into total disarray, given the events of August 15 [when the Taliban took over].

We're also seeing a new urban class of hungry people. So before, if you went to some of these more trading cities — the Mazar-e-Sharifs, the Herats, the Kabuls — people were trading, were moving, there was a lot more sort of functioning livelihoods and liquidity. And this has just ground to a halt.

So we've been speaking to people who were schoolteachers or construction workers [and who are now] scavenging for whatever food that they can find.

It's hitting more people now because of the urban centers, because of the number of people who are without jobs and facing a food crisis, probably for the first time in their lives.

How has the onset of winter affected the situation?

This is all just building up and building up. So it's winter, it's really cold. The snow has started to fall in cities. And when that layer of snow comes, [then] comes this brutal kind of bitter cold, and families tell you, "We're afraid of poverty, we're afraid of the winter, and we want to leave because our country is broken."

So if you don't have money to buy food, you certainly don't have money to buy fuel or firewood to keep warm.

It shouldn't be a lottery of life about who gets to eat, who doesn't get to eat.Do I keep my child warm or do I give my child food?

When we hear that Afghans don't have enough to eat, what does it mean in practical terms?

They're not having milk, they're not having dairy, they're not having meat because they can't afford it — probably less fresh vegetables, less fruit [than before the Taliban takeover]. When you're not having green vegetables, and if you're pregnant or if you've got a newborn, or if you're a child under five, that will start to have an impact. The price of wheat has risen quite dramatically, and people's staple diet in Afghanistan is the Afghan bread, which you probably would have three times a day.

Probably now you're paying the same for [a smaller piece of bread]. They're probably still making their bread in their tandoors [ovens], they're still having maybe a version of dal [lentils] and some sort of stew. And also rice where they can afford it. Very, very simple food.

When you drive through Kabul now, you do see you see fruit, you see the seasonal fruit on the street, you see vegetable stalls, you see food. But what you're hearing is that people just don't have money to buy food. So that's the other piece of this unravelingtragedy and humanitarian crisis — people who are now resorting to desperate measures. I've been in Badakhshan [Province] recently and spoken to women; they have told us that they have sold household items, cutlery, furniture, clothing. We've heard of stories of people selling children into early marriages as well.

How are they coping?

It's very new to a lot of people. It's a very new phenomenon. It's a poor country and it has been, but people have always managed to survive. This is different. The difference now is that people feel this is a very dark time for them. They don't know where is the hope and the optimism. So they have a lot of questions. We have to be able to say, "Well, this is how you get registered. This is what you're entitled to. This is where you go. This is what you need and this is what you need to ask for."

But you do hear [fear] in people's voices. I mean, when you don't know when your next meal is coming from, when you don't know how you're going to feed your children and you too, who do you turn to for help?

There's a certain sadness that you get in people's voices because they feel broken. They feel desperate and they feel abandoned and let down.

They're in pain because of hunger. And nobody wants to live like that. Nobody can imagine not knowing what food you can put in front of your child. Skipping meals because somebody in the family needs to eat and somebody has to go without. Grown men who would have had jobs, who are just in tears. One farmer that we met in Badakhshan said he'd lived through 19 governments and we said, "Well, at least you have peace now." He said, "You know what? War was better. War is better, you know, than being hungry."

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Hannah Bloch is lead digital editor on NPR's international desk, overseeing the work of NPR correspondents and freelance journalists around the world.