KABUL (Reuters) - At a center for disadvantaged children in Kabul, shy young girls step up to recite their duties as fasting Muslims for the visiting U.S. ambassador.
Teachers look on with pride at young Afghans who were once left at the mercy of the street.
Yet the disturbing reality in this war-torn nation — where Western powers battle Islamist forces to maintain a friendly government in power — is that at least 600,000 street children have no safety net to catch them.
The problem, experts say, is getting worse because of the deepening war and the scourge of corruption, despite the inflow of more than $35 billion from foreign donors since the Taliban were removed from power in 2001.
The dangers for children are many, they say: from drugs to the insurgency, from criminal gangs to sexual abuse.
“Poverty is getting worse in Afghanistan and children are forced to find work,” said Shafiqa Zaher, a social worker with Aschiana, the group receiving U.S. aid for its work.
Zaher regularly trawls Kabul streets and parks where street children hang out and approaches them to see if they would be interested in an education.
“We take the children and show them what we do here and if they agree we go to the family and talk to them,” she said.
Some 7,000 in the main cities of Afghanistan are attending Aschiana schools, where food and stationery costs are taken care of and some families are assigned sponsors.
Most have a home to go to, even if it is the shell of a building struck in the country’s unending wars, Zaher says, but their guardians are often disabled and cannot work.
A study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in 2008 found around 60,000 minors involved in child labor in Kabul alone.
Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner at the AIHRC, says it’s a consequence of Afghanistan’s decades of conflict.
“In the last three to four years an increasing number of displaced from the war affected areas — Helmand, Kandahar, Ghazni — have poured into Kabul city to seek refuge,” he said.
A community of refugees mainly from Sangin in Helmand, where U.S. forces led an operation against insurgents last year, relies on Aschiana help in a Kabul slum quarter of plastic awnings.
In three decades of war the country’s population has doubled to more than 30 million and the dusty mountain capital has swelled to a city of four million, much of it pot-holed and crumbling, with chronic traffic.
“Historically Kabul and Afghanistan have never had this crisis of people not having a ceiling or a roof. They’re all poor but at least they had a home,” Nadery said.
He says corruption, the subject of an ongoing diplomatic scuffle between Karzai and Washington and a major issue in parliamentary elections this month, makes a bad situation worse.
A United Nations report said in March that entrenched corruption was leaving the poor at the mercy of the powerful while security-obsessed foreign forces turn a blind eye.
“The direct link between poverty and corruption is always there,” Nadery said. “Most development projects are halted or don’t reach areas where it would affect the life of the poor because of the corruption involved.”
Afghans have been given a rude awakening to the extent of social problems through Omid (Hope), a daring television show that has been running on Saba TV for the past two years.
Investigating dozens of cases around the country, producer and researcher Zainab Rahimy found children whose parents were addicted to opium, boy soldiers drafted into fighting for the Taliban and an alarming frequency of sexual abuse.
She explains one recent case of a 13-year-old who worked two days a week as an office cleaner. His boss was abusing him.
“We found out because he started doing drawings that suggested there was something. He was crying when he told me the story,” Rahimy said. “But it’s rare that we do sex abuse on TV. We might follow 10 cases but only one we can film.”
Deprivation and abuse pushes some teenagers to join the insurgents, she says. “The worst was children who the Taliban were forcing to go with them for an amount of money. They were from 7 to 18 years old, with guns and regular training.”
Touring Aschiana in Kabul last week, the U.S. ambassador’s entourage viewed an impressive display of child artwork that seemed to encompass modern Afghanistan’s cycle of suffering.
One referred to the bombardment of Kabul by militias in the 1990s. The ambassador paused at another, a copy of an 1879 canvas of the lone survivor of Britain’s 1842 retreat from Kabul.
“Those at Aschiana have an opportunity but most have no protection and serious problems,” said Rahimy.
“It’s a danger for the future because it’s not a small group of people in this situation.”
Editing by Paul Tait and David Fox