Afghan women and children sit in front of a bakery waiting for bread donations in Kabul's Old City, Afghanistan, on Sept. 16, 2021.

'It is a catastrophe': Afghans are in desperate need of food, humanitarian aid, refugee worker says

Astrid Sletten, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Kabul, spoke to The World’s Carol Hills about the level of need in Afghanistan and what aid organizations are able to deliver in the current environment.

The World

Afghan women and children sit in front of a bakery waiting for bread donations in Kabul's Old City, Afghanistan, on Sept. 16, 2021.

Bernat Armangue/AP

A month after the fall of Kabul, the world is still wrestling with how to help Afghanistan’s impoverished people without propping up their Taliban leaders — a question that grows more urgent by the day.

With the Afghan government severed from the international banking system, aid groups both inside Afghanistan and abroad say they are struggling to get emergency relief, basic services and funds to a population at risk of starvation amid staggering unemployment and the pandemic, and after 20 years of war.

Some of the international humanitarian aid groups that have kept their doors open inside the country are gingerly finding their footing in the new environment.

Astrid Sletten, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in Kabul, says that there is a sense of normalcy in the capital with shops being open and people going about business as usual, but the mood is rather somber. 

“A lot of people are asking themselves, what is life going to be like in this new Afghanistan.”

Astrid Sletten, Afghanistan Country Director Norwegian Refugee Council .

“A lot of people are asking themselves, what is life going to be like in this new Afghanistan,” she said. 

Sletten was out of Afghanistan when Kabul fell but she came back to the country to continue her work.

“It's my duty. It's my job, she said. “I have no intention of leaving the Afghans behind. Afghanistan needs us more than ever.”

Sletten spoke to The World’s Carol Hills about the level of need in Afghanistan and what aid organizations are able to deliver in the current environment.

Carol Hills: How about your Afghan colleagues, male or female? Do they feel safe coming to work?
Astrid Sletten: Well, all Afghan male and female staff are coming back to work in the office in Kabul. We may have a couple who are staying at home because their families are not comfortable, but 98% are back in the office. And we have reopened our field offices in the Kabul informal settlements, meaning where all the internally displaced persons are living in the outskirts of the city. We have been able to reopen schools in some areas and there are still areas where the Taliban is not allowing our female staff to resume work. And without our female staff, we refuse to open offices and refuse to resume activities.
We've heard that the offices of some international nongovernmental organizations have been broken into and trashed and their supplies were stolen. How concerned are you about that?
Well, that is very concerning. However, the Taliban is reassuring the NGO community that these are criminal elements and that they are in process of getting their functions in place. The Taliban police are even saying to us that even for them, this quick takeover was a surprise, that they were expecting a more orderly handover. So, they have needed a few weeks to get things sorted out. Yesterday, the chief of the Taliban police told NGOs he was meeting that they even have repossessed some vehicles that criminal elements had stolen and that they realized belonged to NGOs. And they have asked NGOs that if you're missing a vehicle, call this number and we will sort it out and return the vehicles to you. So, there are mixed messages.
You mentioned Taliban police. Do you and your staffers interact with Taliban officials and foot soldiers on a daily basis?
We see the foot soldiers driving through town. And yes, I do drive through town and I go to and from the office and I even go to see locations in Kabul where we have services for internally displaced people. But yesterday, we had a meeting with the chief of the Taliban police and the message was, "We want to look after you, we want to make sure you're safe, tell us what you need, we want NGOs to feel safe, we want you to stay and deliver."
What is the level of need in Afghanistan right now and what is able to be met by the few groups that are still on the ground there?
First of all, I believe that most of the NGOs who left will soon return. The UN has its air bridge up and running and I'm expecting a lot of NGOs to resume their work in the weeks to come. But the needs are staggering. It is a catastrophe. Somebody said that it's on the brink of catastrophe, but we are full head into it. More than 1 million children are at risk of dying this winter from starvation; 18 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The public sector is about to collapse. Who will pay the salaries for public teachers or health workers and clinics and hospitals? These are questions that need to be answered and they need to be answered fast. The situation is dire in Afghanistan.
What are the most dire needs in terms of humanitarian relief for Afghanistan right now?
Even now, money doesn't help because the market is dwindling due to the failing crops. I mean, 40% of the crops are failing due to the drought. So, there is not enough food in the country. Food needs to come either by airplane or by land from neighboring countries. If food does not reach Afghanistan, people are going to starve to death and in high numbers. In addition, in a couple of months, the winter will come and there are [negative temperatures] in Kabul and in the northern part of the country. People need shelter. People need blankets. People need winter clothes for themselves and for their children. They need firewood. They need winterization assistance, and they need it before the winter comes.
You describe the situation in Afghanistan as dire. What's an image that kind of lives with you in terms of what that dire situation really looks like.
Every time the snow comes in November, December, I travel out to the Kabul informal settlements and then see children running around barefoot or in plastic slippers, in slush, in frozen water and snow. People are living under a tarpaulin or with makeshift walls made out of cloth, etc. and it's a good reminder for me why I'm in this line of work and why I continue to work in Afghanistan. Despite the somewhat cumbersome situation.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.