Afghanistan’s Desperation Economy – The Journal.

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Kate Linebaugh: Our colleague Sune Rasmussen has covered Afghanistan for a decade. And he says there are scenes of despair all around the country.

Sune Rasmussen : In recent months, you’ve seen just crowds of women dressed in blue burkas sitting outside bakeries, begging for food, begging for bread from passers by, and a piece of bread in Afghanistan costs 10 cents. You have children collecting trash, collecting plastic. They make about 50 cents a day and they spend that money on feeding their families.

Kate Linebaugh: Right now more than half of the country’s population, over 20 million people face acute hunger.

Sune Rasmussen: What that looks like on a daily basis is you have families that are eating once or twice a day. Parents can’t feed their children what they used to feed them. So we’re at a point now where many Afghan families, they have to watch their children starve to death or they’ll have to make some radical choices. And one of the ways that you can make money in Afghanistan if you don’t have a job and if you run out of other options is that you can sell either your children, for example, a daughter in marriage or you can sell organs, body parts And I have met with many Afghans now who’ve sold kidneys.

Kate Linebaugh: You say this so cavalierly, but selling your children or selling your organs to survive like another level.

Sune Rasmussen : It is another level. And this sounds like a crazy choice to a westerner, but it’s a crazy choice for an Afghan too. This is not something that Afghans do easily.

Kate Linebaugh: Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business and power. I’m Kate Linebaugh. It’s Tuesday, April 26th. Coming up on the show, Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and the painful choice one family made to survive. Several weeks ago, Sune traveled to the western Afghan city of Herat. And there he said evidence of Afghans trying to sell their organs was everywhere.

Sune Rasmussen : There’s notes all on lamp posts and walls, both from people advertising that they’re selling kidneys or people looking for kidneys. There are kidney brokers in Herat that will distribute their business cards. It’s on social media. It’s not even a secret. Everyone knows which two hospitals in Herat are doing these kidney transplantations. It’s not difficult to find out. It’s an open secret basically.

Kate Linebaugh: Sune wanted to understand how someone could get to this level of desperation. And in Herat, he met a man named Goul Mohamed.

Sune Rasmussen : So Goul Mohamed is this large broad shouldered man. He’s about 40. He has a big black beard, really strong hands. He’s been working for over a decade as a laborer, mostly doing construction work. I was introduced to Goul Mohamed through a local Afghan journalist I was working with. And we drove out to see him fairly early in the morning. It was Ramadan, so fasting month, the Islamic fasting month. So the streets were quiet. There were some children playing outside in this (inaudible) area he was living, but otherwise was quiet. And then he welcomed us into his sort of mutt compound where he lives with his wife and 12 children and also some of his own brothers and their children. There were over 20 family members in this compound.

Kate Linebaugh: Goul Mohamed used to work across the border in Iran and send money back to his family. But as the Taliban were gaining ground in Afghanistan last summer, he left and returned to Herat to be close to his family. The situation in Afghanistan was becoming desperate. After the Taliban took control, the US and western governments imposed harsh sanctions, stopped providing billions of dollars of aid and froze the country’s foreign currency reserves.

Sune Rasmussen : And they’re imposing this economic pressure on the Taliban to try and cripple the new government, but also to ensure that no American tax money, or European tax money for that matter, goes to propping up the new government. And the result of this is why we see now a completely choked economy.

Kate Linebaugh: At the same time, Afghanistan has been hit with one of its worst droughts in decades.

Sune Rasmussen : So if you’re an Afghan family, you’ve seen your sources of income choked off. You’ve seen your job opportunities vanish. And then at the same time, the last and most reliable source of income in the country, which is agriculture, has then taken a really serious beating from the drought and the livelihoods of millions of people have been eradicated.

Kate Linebaugh: The Taliban have called on the west to lift sanctions to help ease the country’s humanitarian crisis and said without it there could be migration. For people like Goul Mohamed, life has been a struggle. He doesn’t have a job and one of the family’s main sources of income comes from his eldest son who collects trash for up to $3 a day. Here’s Goul Mohamed and an interpreter translating what he said.

Speaker 3: And I also don’t have any job at the moment to go there. So overall, I can say that life is not going on well.

Kate Linebaugh: So Goul Mohamed got more desperate.

Sune Rasmussen : He started borrowing money to feed his family. He borrowed food on credit from local stores and he borrowed money from neighbors in the area where his family lived. And this is pretty common practice in Afghanistan. Shopkeepers will give you food on credit and you’ll pay them back later.

Kate Linebaugh: As he borrowed more, Goul Mohamed found himself under mounting pressure to pay his creditors back and no way to earn more income. After the break, the wrenching decision Goul Mohamed made to pay off his debts. After months of borrowing to feed his family, last summer Goul Mohamed ran out of credit.

Sune Rasmussen : So all these creditors, all these people that had lent Goul Mohamed money, they wanted their money back and they wanted them now. And they came to his house and basically threatened him that if he didn’t pay up, it would have consequences.

Kate Linebaugh: Those consequences were severe. Sune says Goul Mohamed told him that the creditors threatened to sell his two year old son to pay off the debts. Here’s the interpreter again.

Speaker 3: People whom I borrowed money from, they came behind the door and they took one of my kids. They give something to him like a food or chocolate something and then he was running toward that guy and that guy grabbed him and put him in the car, saying that if you don’t pay my money, I’ll take your son. But so I got my son back from him and I promised him that I’ll pay your debts back.

Kate Linebaugh: Goul Mohamed told Sune he was terrified. He and his wife tried to figure out what they could do to get money. One option, sell their kidneys. But they had a problem. Both Goul Mohamed and his wife had disqualifying health conditions. So they made the difficult decision to consider selling one of their children’s kidneys. They quickly ruled out their eldest son because his income from collecting trash is crucial for the family. So then they looked at their second son, Ghalil.

Goul Mohamed: (foreign language).

Speaker 3: A strong boy. He (inaudible) weight. So since (inaudible) is his younger age, we decided to sell his kidney.

Sune Rasmussen : He said no father anywhere would want to sell his son’s kidney. He also said that when the day came and they were taking Ghalil to the hospital, they didn’t tell Ghalil who’s 15, they didn’t tell Ghalil why they were taking him to the hospital and Goul Mohamed himself didn’t have the heart to take him. So he sent his own uncle to take his son there. And it was Goul Mohamed’s uncle who sat with Ghalil when he was put on anesthesia and when he woke up and was confused about what had happened. And it took him several weeks to tell Ghalil what had actually happened. He just thought he had been sick and was now recovering.

Kate Linebaugh: What did Ghalil say about that? About this situation?

Sune Rasmussen: Yeah. Ghalil didn’t reflect too much on the sale of his kidney and what it meant for the family. We talked about how he was feeling now in his condition and he said he was very tired.

Ghalil: (foreign language).

Sune Rasmussen : He was sometimes in pain. Sometimes he was in pain overnight and he said he couldn’t run anymore. He couldn’t play with his friends anymore because he was exhausted because he was in pain. And he basically just said that he hoped that he would feel better soon. But for now he mostly stays inside.

Kate Linebaugh: Goul Mohamed got $4,500 for Ghalil’s kidney. That allowed him to pay off his debts. But the experience was devastating.

Sune Rasmussen : When I was talking to Goul Mohamed, he choked up and he said that he could barely look at his son when he returned to the house. And the night when he took the decision, he cried all night because it was the most difficult decision he had ever taken. But he also made very clear that this was the choice. Him and his wife had the choice of letting these creditors kidnap one of their children, their two year old or they could sell a kidney, which wouldn’t kill their 15 year old and then the family could survive.

Kate Linebaugh: And who is buying that kidney? What happens to these organs?

Sune Rasmussen: It’s mostly Afghans who are buying kidneys from other Afghans. Some of these transplantations are happening in the western part of Afghanistan, close to Iran. So there is possibly some cross border trade taking place. But buying and selling kidneys is illegal in Afghanistan as it is in Iran. So there could be some smuggling taking place, but it’s my clear impression that most of the trade happens within Afghan borders where there are people who need kidneys and who are willing to pay for them.

Kate Linebaugh: Does the government do anything to crack down on this?

Sune Rasmussen: The Taliban say that they will crack down on it and that it is illegal and it is un-Islamic to sell your kidney for money. You can donate it, but you can’t profit from it. The previous government said the same thing. The fact of the matter is that if you’re cracking down on the kidney business, you are cracking down on the very, very poorest Afghans in society.

Kate Linebaugh: A spokesman for the Taliban blamed the organ trade in Herat on international smugglers and said the government is doing its best to stop it. He acknowledged that people sold their organs out of desperation. Meanwhile, for Goul Mohamed, there are still no jobs. And Sune says that recently Goul Mohamed has started borrowing money again.

Sune Rasmussen : He’s very worried. He also has daughters who he can sell in marriage. And one reason that he sold his son’s kidney was also to avoid selling his daughters in marriage because he thought that was a worse option, but he’s definitely worried.

Kate Linebaugh: You’ve been covering the country for 10 years. Seeing what has happened over the last almost six months, how do you reflect on it?

Sune Rasmussen: Yeah, I’ve been covering Afghanistan, I moved to Afghanistan eight years ago and lived there for several years. To be honest with you, Kate, I mean, I’m still trying to get my mind around what’s happened the past six months. It completely boggles the mind the way that Afghanistan has has changed, the fact that the Taliban are now in power and this horrific downward spiral that Afghanistan has been hurled into. It’s very difficult to come to terms with millions of people who are unable to even create a living for their families, let alone leave the country if that’s what they want to do. For me and also for many other people who know the country well, this is still pretty unfathomable.

Kate Linebaugh: That’s all for today, Tuesday, April 26th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. If you like our show, follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re out every weekday afternoon. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.


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