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Children the Victims in Afghan War
AP, December 27, 1998
By: Kathy Gannon
A war victamKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The little girl shyly opens a tiny tattered white purse to reveal her treasure -- a carefully folded piece of traditional Afghan unleavened bread.

Food is a precious commodity on the streets of Kabul, especially for the city's weakest residents, the children orphaned by Afghanistan's long war.

Sameera is 8. Two years ago, her parents and brothers died during one of the relentless rocket assaults that ravaged Kabul for four years while rival Islamic factions fought for control of the capital.

Sameera, too, was injured.

Leaning on a friend for support, Sameera removes her sock to show a gaping hole in her ankle "Shrapnel," she says matter of factly. Then she gently pats her shin, thigh and chest to show where other pieces of an exploded rocket shredded her body.

She smiles and points to the wrecked buildings behind her. "That's my home down the street," she says. She lives with her aunt.

Sameera is with a band of children, all parentless, skipping home from a morning of clandestine classes where they were learning to read. The Taliban religious army, which now rules Kabul with a strict hand, has barred girls from attending school.

International aid groups estimate 28,000 children live on the streets of the city, many of them scavengers like Sameera's friends who start out before daybreak to collect wood and garbage to sell and burn.

In a survey a year ago, the United Nations Children's Fund found that two of every three children interviewed had seen someone killed during the fighting in Kabul. About seven in 10 had lost a close relative to the war.

Even sadder, virtually every child surveyed expected to die a violent death, the report said.

Many children in Kabul spend theirs days scavenging and their nights fighting off the cold and nightmares.

Seven-year-old Zia's father died when a rocket hit near their home. The boy found the mutilated body on the doorstep, and most nights and often during the day he relives his father's death.

"Now when I see the electricity pole where he fell, I see my father," he says through an interpreter. "I cry at night. It still is a shock to my brain.''

Zia attends a school for street kids run by a Swiss-based group, ASHIANA. The organization gives the children two hot meals and three hours of classes every day.

While talking with a reporter, Zia stuffs a piece of bread in his tattered jacket and whispers he will give it to his brother at home.

Because of the Taliban's ban on girls attending school, the ASHIANA group each month distributes flour, tea, sugar and rice to young girls who are living on the street. Mohammed Yousuf, an administrator with ASHIANA, says the group has registered 650 boys and about the same number of girls.

At Kabul's largest orphanage, where 400 children live, there is no money for shoes for the smallest children. They huddle around a single wood-burning stove for heat and most have a constant cough. There is little medicine and several children lie bundled in dirty woolen blankets, coughing and shivering.

One little girl, barely 5, apparently has a degenerative nerve disease that leaves her weak and wracked by muscle spasms. But the orphanage staff can neither identify the illness nor do they have medicine to treat her.

"Sometimes she is just screaming we have to carry her to the bathroom. Her legs are too weak,'' says Dil Jan, an elderly woman who has worked at the orphanage for 17 years.

"Before it was always the fighting ... now there is no fighting, but there is no bread, no heat, no clothes for the children. It's becoming worse and worse.''

The International Red Cross supplies fuel to the orphanage, but other aid groups that once helped out have left Kabul in protest over the Taliban's order to relocate to war-damaged university dormitories.

"We have sick children, but we don't even have the cost of a taxi to take them to the hospital,'' says Maulvi Mohammed Asif, the orphanage's director.

"To see this,'' Asif says, looking around at his orphanage, "it is a humanitarian failure."

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