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Reuters, January 23, 2012

Afghans hit by food price hikes as Pakistan shutdown bites

"We are just having to let food expire and keep it on the shelves in hope of selling it."

By Rob Taylor

With snow piled deep in front of his small Kabul shop and a border shutdown enforced by Pakistan driving up food prices and severing a vital lifeline into Afghanistan, Asmatullah is having his own winter of discontent.

Since Pakistan closed supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan after the coalition killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border air attack in November, ordinary Afghans and foreigners alike are feeling the impact of soaring food costs.

"I have lost 50 percent of my customers," Asmatullah says, somehow managing a smile as he surveys his empty shop, surrounded by cartons of eggs and milk, boxes of cigarettes, drinks and crates of bottled water, now frozen solid on the icy pavement outside.

Poor woman in Kabul winters
Winters in Kabul has made life harder for the poor people.
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"Everybody has less income now, so people are just not able to buy. When the border is closed, the prices go up," he said, huddled in a black hat and leather jacket to try and keep one of the most biting winters for years at bay.

The border shutdown, which Pakistan has promised to lift at a time still to be decided, underscores Afghanistan's reliance on food imports through its mountainous eastern border, rather than from Iran in the west and longer, more costly, routes north through ex-Soviet Central Asia.

Most food imports come from India, Dubai and Pakistan, and are trucked into the landlocked country from Karachi, entering Afghanistan through turbulent southern Kandahar province, in Spin Boldak, and Torkham, in eastern Nangarhar province.

Since the Pakistan border closure, the cost of trucking or flying supplies into the country for U.S. forces has soared from $17 million a month to $104 million, figures from the Pentagon in U.S. media showed this month.

At the three-storey Finest supermarket, popular with foreigners and locals and the target of a deadly suicide bomb last year, owner Matiuddin says the cost of importing a container of food has soared from $8000 before the border closure to around $23,000.

"It's a huge problem. Everybody is yelling. If they don't solve it soon we are going to have to close our business," Matiuddin said in his cramped office, slamming his hand on an ageing fax machine in frustration.

"We are just having to let food expire and keep it on the shelves in hope of selling it."

Since the shutdown was imposed, prices for a kilo of chicken have jumped from 200 Afghani ($2) to 250 Afghani. Tomatoes have more than quadrupled and those for cheese doubled.

Housekeeper Nadira Habibi, 37, said that even with her husband and a son working, it was becoming too difficult to feed her family of seven.

"Before we spent around 20,000 Afghani a month ($400), but now it's more than 30,000, which we're just not able to afford," Habibi said.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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