Anger as Afghan children die in winter freeze

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Anger as Afghan children die in winter freeze

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By Andrew North BBC News, Kabul

A tiny wisp of steam floating from a kettle is the only hint of anything warm inside Samar Gul's tent.

After making tea there was no wood left to fire the stove - as fresh snow began to settle outside.

Everything inside was damp - the blankets, the floor and even the foam-filled flat cushions on which his family sleeps.

Gul's two-year-old daughter is shivering, her nose streaming.

He hugs her to his chest.

Samar Gul fled to Gul Buta camp with his wife, son and two daughters. Pictures: Andrew North

"Where has Kabulay gone?" she asks.

He tries to change the subject.

Last week Kabulay - his youngest daughter - froze to death in this tent.

"We were up all night trying to keep her warm but we didn't have enough blankets," he says.

"Then we heard her cough. It was her last breath."

Kabulay is one of nearly 40 children to die so far this winter - one of the harshest in years.

But it has left Afghanistan's Western-backed government exposed to new questions over its competence despite receiving billions of dollars in foreign aid.

Many of the displaced children do not have the clothes or shoes for a cold winter

Why, Afghans ask, can it not do something as simple as protect people against the predictable winter cold?

Most of these deaths have been happening not in far-off valleys of the Hindu Kush but in the capital, Kabul - the focus of the international aid effort.

Like many other children who perished, Kabulay died in a tented camp for people displaced by the war between Nato and the Taliban.

“Start Quote

I am sorry for what has happened to the children. They do not have the support they need - and they are the future of our country”

End Quote Jamaher Anwari Afghan minister

There are now more than 40 such encampments around the capital housing at least 30,000 people, according to the UN.

Their numbers have grown by nearly 50% in the past year - with people coming from as far as Helmand and Kandahar.

They arrive in a city already burdened by tens of thousands of refugees who have returned from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran in recent years.

Samar Gul fled to Gul Buta camp with his wife, son and then two daughters last year because of heavy fighting in his home village east of Kabul.

The internally displaced are bottom of the heap.

Reluctant to institutionalise these camps, the government has been accused of ignoring their needs.

A large well-guarded Afghan army base is just minutes walk away from the Gul Buta camp.

The hundreds of displaced people living in tented camps are reliant on aid handouts

But the 1,000 residents of this ramshackle collection of tents say they have seen no official help.

Prompted by reports of the child deaths, international aid groups are now bringing aid to Gul Buta and other camps.

But it is barely skimming the surface of the problem. There is still little chance that any of them will receive proper shelter.

Some children are wearing donated boots, but many pick their way through the snow in open-toed sandals.

For Christine Roehrs of Save the Children, all this proves that the international community "cannot leave this country".

She is careful, though, not to ascribe any blame.

The Afghan winter has been the harshest in years

Not so Kabul independent MP Fakhandar Zahra Nadri, who calls the Afghan government "useless" for what she says is its lack of planning.

"The same pattern of irresponsibility keeps happening year after year," she says.

Jamaher Anwari, the minister responsible for internally displaced people and refugees, admits that the government has again been overwhelmed.

"I am sorry for what has happened to the children," he says.

"They do not have the support they need - and they are the future of our country."

As the West tries to speed up efforts to disengage from Afghanistan, it is hardly an encouraging sign from the government that it wants to leave behind.

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