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By John Simpson

BBC News, Bamiyan, central Afghanistan

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Millions of Afghans have become dependent on food provided by organisations like the World Food Programme

This is a country which is starting to feel the very real fear of hunger.

The weather is turning from early autumn warmth to a sharp chill. Several areas are reporting drought, which adds to the sense of growing catastrophe.

At Maidan Wardak, 50 miles west of Kabul, a crowd of several hundred men had gathered in the hope of getting flour from an official distribution point. The flour was provided by the World Food Programme.

Taliban soldiers kept the crowd reasonably quiet, but people who were told they weren’t eligible for a hand-out were angry and frightened.

“The winter is nearly here,” said one old man. “I don’t know how I’ll get through it if I can’t make bread”.

The WFP is faced with having to raise its supplies to Afghanistan to help more than 22 million people.

If the weather is as bad as experts are predicting this winter, the expectation is that large numbers will be threatened with acute hunger and widespread famine.

Media caption,

“We’re now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth”

I spoke to the executive director of the WFP, David Beasley, when he paid a visit to Kabul on Sunday.

His analysis of the situation was alarming.

“It is as bad as you possibly can imagine,” said Mr Beasley. “In fact, we’re now looking at the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.

“Ninety-five percent of the people don’t have enough food, and now we’re looking at 23 million people marching towards starvation,” he added. “The next six months are going to be catastrophic. It is going to be hell on Earth.”

Before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in August, there was confidence that the government of President Ashraf Ghani would be able to cope with the threat of a bad winter, given the help of the international community. That help evaporated when Mr Ghani’s government collapsed.

Western countries have cut off their aid to the country, since they don’t want to be seen to help a regime which bars girls from education and is in favour of reintroducing the full range of sharia punishments.

But will those countries just stand by now and allow millions of innocent people to face acute hunger?

Mr Beasley challenges the governments and the billionaires of the developed world to face up to the urgent need for help.

Image source, AFP

Image caption,

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women queue for food supplies in Kabul

“To the world leaders, to the billionaires: imagine that this was your little girl or your little boy, or your grandchild about to starve to death,” he said. “You would do everything you possibly could, and when there’s $400 trillion worth of wealth on the earth today, shame on us.”

“We let any child die from hunger. Shame on us. I don’t care where that child is,” he adds.

In the city of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, where in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the ancient and beautiful statues of the Buddha, carved into the cliff side in the sixth century, we went to meet a widow, Fatema, and her seven children aged from three to 16.

Her husband died of stomach cancer not long ago.

They are wretchedly poor, and live in a cave close to the huge alcove in the cliff where one of the Buddhas used to stand.

Under the last government Fatema was able to get fairly regular supplies of flour and oil, but those stopped directly the Taliban took over.

Fatema used to make a little money weeding the soil for a nearby farmer. Now, though, the drought which has been afflicting this area means that fewer crops have survived, and there is no work for her.

“I’m frightened,’ she says. “I’ve got nothing to give the children. Soon I’ll have to go out and beg.”

Some parents have sold their daughters off to older men in marriage. Fatema has refused to do that. But unless the supply of food resumes, she and her children face actual starvation.

Now the snow is beginning to settle on the nearby mountain-tops and there is a new sharpness in the air.

The winter will very soon be here, and huge numbers of people like Fatema and her family will be on the very brink of catastrophe.

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