Mothers queue to give their children up to the comforts of an orphanage

By Patrick Cockburn
Monday 03 December 2001 01:00

Shepherding her two bright-eyed daughters in front of her, Zargona, her face behind a blue veil, explained why she was desperate to place them in Kabul's only orphanage.

"We have been very poor since my husband died eight years ago," she said. "Then our house was destroyed when the US bombed Kabul, though nobody was injured. I have four other children and I cannot feed them all."

She triumphantly clutched a piece of paper, which was recently signed by Makhdum Abdullah, the director of the orphanage, provisionally allowing her girls to enter his grim-looking institution.

The other women who stood outside the orphanage gates showed all the signs of anxiety faced by parents entering their children in an exclusive school.

But conditions in the orphanage are not good. Mr Abdullah explained to us earlier that he was short of food, and months had passed since he had provided milk or meat to the 600 children in his charge.

Fardin is 13 but looks five years younger. "They give us bread, rice and potatoes, but it is always in a very small plate and we never feel full," he said. The Kabul orphanage has other failings. It is getting very cold in the city as winter closes in, but there is no oil for the heaters. Many windows are made of plastic, not glass. There is no money to buy children warm clothes.

But such is the misery of the poor of Kabul, where a quarter of the children die before they are five years old, that families believe they have a better chance of survival there than at home.

Beside Zargona was another mother, called Mariam. She said she hoped the orphanage would take in her son, Sobar. Her problem was that the boy, who looked about seven, had been in the orphanage before, and she had taken him out. "I had to," she said. "We had terrible problems and I brought him home so he could earn money by weaving carpets."

Mariam's husband left for Iran several years ago for medical treatment. She heard nothing from him. Finally, somebody told her he was dead. She said: "We had just moved to a new neighbourhood and I was not able to to get food coupons because I did not know anybody working in the World Food Programme."

The orphanage also provides education. A perky Ahmed Tamim, aged 15, said: "My parents are dead and I was told the education was good here and the schools outside are all bad. When I came here three years ago I could barely read and write, but now I can do so perfectly. I want to be a teacher when I grow up."

The orphanage staff explained that the children were stunted owing to their poor diet, while the lack of books held back their education. It was some time before Sabur Faroyin, the director of one section of the orphanage, mentioned that he and his staff had not been paid for four months.

"In theory I have 72 people working for me but only half of them are here today," he said. "You can't blame them. They have no pay and there is no public transport, so they have to walk here or get a taxi."

He added that the Ministry of Education was responsible for the orphanage but that the government had no money. It has not yet provided a new curriculum to replace the one approved by the Taliban.

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