KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Judas trees must be blooming these days out at the Gulghendi Hills, their purple flowers bursting gloriously all over the green slopes. They hold a festival there every year, where musicians play and families fly kites.
Normally, my family would take a weekend trip there to escape Kabul. There, or to the Salang Pass, where the snow melt from the mountains streams down through the cliffs; or to the rivers and gardens of Kapisa province. Spring is when Afghanistan shows its beauty, and we like many families take any opportunity to see it.
We cannot. Instead, we are trapped in a city that seems so strange to me now.
Bored with having to be indoors all day, my three kids sometimes go up to the roof of our apartment building and look out at the streets of Kabul below. They’re surprised to see people out, despite the coronavirus lockdown. “Father, why don’t they stay home like we do?”
I explain that these are people who have nothing to feed their children. What I don’t tell them is that I’ve never seen so many people out begging in our city.
The streets, once busy with shops and traffic, are shut down. The ranks of beggars have swelled. It makes me worry for the future in a way I haven’t despite years of war.
As a journalist, I am exempt from lockdown rules. I work from my office — often late, late because Afghanistan’s continuous violence has not stopped. In the evening, on the way home, I usually stop to buy a few things at one of the few places open.
The moment I stop, men, women, children knock on my car windows asking for help, When I leave my car, they trail me to the bakery. When I step out of the bakery again, dozens of them surround me, pleading for money or bread.
It melts my heart. I can’t help them all and can’t bear seeing how desperate they are. If I give to one, dozens more will come flocking.
They are all ages, from children to adults of working age, to widows and elderly retired government workers. Many day laborers can no longer find jobs in construction or cleaning like they used to. Thousands of Afghans who had been working in neighboring Iran and Pakistan have had to return to Afghanistan after losing jobs there. The poverty rate has jumped to more than 50%.
They are not the only ones in the streets. At first many stuck by the lockdown rules, but over the days, more and more people are out and about, few wearing masks or practicing social distancing.
In random testing by the Public Health Ministry this month, one-third of 500 people sampled came back positive for COVID-19, raising fears of widespread undetected infections in one of the world’s most fragile states. So far, Afghanistan, a nation of 36 million, has performed only 33,800 tests, with more than 12,400 confirmed infections and 227 deaths.
My children’s future is my biggest worry. My son Akmal and daughter Hadia are in seventh grade, and my little daughter Muqadasa is in third. But schools are closed, and Afghanistan’s system can’t do online classes. Even if they could, the internet connection is often bad — or, during the frequent power outages, nonexistent.
My wife was a schoolteacher for 10 years, so she teaches them at home. There are new educational programs on TV, created especially for the lockdown. But they miss the day trips we would be taking them on now.
“The beautiful weather is passing, and we can’t enjoy it,” Akmal said to me. He was so heartbroken, he just started to whisper: “No outings, no parks, nothing.”
Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow AP Kabul correspondent Rahim Faiez at https://twitter.com/mrahimfaiez