Kabul, Afghanistan
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Azrat knew it was time to flee her village in Afghanistan when a mortar landed outside the family house, peppering the air with shrapnel and injuring her eight-year-old son.

The 40-year-old mother of eight had grown used to clashes between the Taliban and the government, but an upsurge in violence in Helmand province's Nad-e-Ali district finally prompted her to leave for the relative safety of Kabul.

"It came too close," said Azrat, who goes by only one name. "After my son was injured, I didn't want to stay."

Afghanistan winter in Kabul1

Fatima, , one of Azrat's eight children, is tying to stay warm in Kabul, on 24th November. PICTURE: Stefanie Glinski/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The family is among thousands of rural Afghans who have sought refuge in the capital as violence increases in many parts of the country, according to the United Nations, which says migration to Kabul rose by 30 per cent this year.

In the past six months alone, 25,000 people have arrived in Kabul, according to data from the International Organization for Migration. Many lack shelter and warmth as the harsh winter gets under way. 

"Physically speaking, there is very little room for people to come to Kabul. There are no houses, nothing is prepared. Camps for displaced people could have been sufficient in summer, but our winters are harsh. For these families, even survival is difficult." 

- Dawood Sultanzoi, mayor of Kabul.

Kabul, a high-altitude city surrounded by mountains, is already home to between six to seven million people - far more than the one million it was intended for - and 80 per cent of these live in areas with no formal infrastructure, water or electricity.

"Physically speaking, there is very little room for people to come to Kabul. There are no houses, nothing is prepared," the city's mayor Dawood Sultanzoi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Camps for displaced people could have been sufficient in summer, but our winters are harsh. For these families, even survival is difficult." 

Kabul has no formal camps for new arrivals, who tend to seek out areas where relatives or people from the same province have already settled. Afghanistan's Directorate of Refugees and Repatriations identified 54 such settlements across  the city.

"These families are living in tents, damaged buildings or mud-made houses covered with tarpaulin," said Mohammad Hussain, regional manager at Welthungerhilfe, a German aid group providing assistance to the new arrivals.

"The major challenges continue to be the lack of food and heating items."

Afghanistan winter in Kabul2

Dawood Khan, 53, says he escaped Helmand 14 years ago and has since been stuck in the capital, Kabul. Taken on 24th November. PICTURE: Stefanie Glinski/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Thousands of civilians have been caught up in the fighting in Azrat's native province, Helmand.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 families were displaced in October alone in Helmand. At least 20 per cent of its districts are now under Taliban control, according to the US watchdog SIGAR.

The fighting in the province, where US and British troops for years fought to clear Taliban from a string of poppy-growing districts, comes as Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban try to push forward power-sharing talks in Qatar. 

"We were in the crossfire," said Azrat outside the small mud-built shack with low ceilings and a dirt floor where she and her children stay, warming her fingers under her breath as the winter's first snowflakes descended.  

"My husband who works as a farmer stayed back to work, but he told us to leave and find safety." 

A D V E R T I S E M E N T


CHC advertisement


With US troops due to leave by next May, many Afghans fear the situation will become worse.

But the camp on the outskirts of Kabul that Azrat now calls home does not provide the safety she hoped for when she fled. 

Violence and terrorist attacks have surged in the capital, petty crime is common, and she struggles to provide warmth and food for her family.

Unable to afford wood or coal, the family heat their small room by burning plastic, sitting in thick smoke, their faces covered and their hands extended towards the fire. 

With millions burning wood, coal or even plastic and car tyres to keep warm, even the air outside is badly polluted, a situation exacerbated by the mountains that ring the city, trapping pollutants in.

Afghanistan winter in Kabul3

Azrat's children stand outside their small mud hut that has become their home in the capital Kabul since fleeing violence in Helmand in Kabul, on 24th November. PICTURE: Stefanie Glinski/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The family hopes to be able to return home. But Dawood Khan, who has lived in the camp for a decade, said most arrivals did not leave.

"I fled fighting in Helmand 14 years ago and I am still here," he said. "The city is not ready for all the people, but this country is a warzone. People will keep fleeing, they will keep coming - and they will stay."