February 7, 1999

Kabul's Lone Orphanage Is Decrepit

By The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Every day the poorest in Kabul trudge to the city's only orphanage, bang on the gate and plead with the weather-beaten guard to take their children.

And every day, the old man behind the giant steel gates of Tahay Maskan Orphanage turns them away.

“They beg us to please take their children, but we can't,” said Amir Uddin, the man in charge of the orphanage's dormitories where about 400 children live. “We don't want to turn them away ... (but) we can't take any more children. We have nothing for the ones we have.”

Shattered by war and civil strife, life is hard for millions in Afghanistan. But for many children, the agony is particularly great.

International aid organizations say 28,000 children in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, survive by scavenging through bombed-out buildings, salvaging scraps of metal, unexploded warheads and wood.

Many of the children at the orphanage have at least one living parent, usually a mother alone, unable to support her children. But officials at the orphanage say it has never been this bad. They have no warm clothes for the children, no medicine, no hot water, no money and very little international aid.

Foreign aid workers pulled out of Kabul in July because of a dispute with the ruling Taliban religious army, which ordered them to relocate to abandoned school dormitories. The groups balked and left in protest.

“Look around. We have nothing,” Uddin said. “But the worst thing is our bath house. We have no hot water and it is just a cement box. It is freezing.”

Some of the youngest children haven't had a bath in six weeks. Sores have developed on their heads and faces.

Uddin says it's a trade off. With temperatures well below freezing, he says a bath in frigid water would be certain to make the smallest children sick. The older boys are hardier; they wash every two weeks.

Uddin said the orphanage can't risk widespread sickness, not in a city short of medicine and not when the orphanage has no money to buy whatever antibiotics might be available in the market.

Despite his efforts, most of the younger children have a cough. They huddle for warmth around the single wood-fired heater in every room.

During a reporter's recent visit, more than a dozen 2 and 3 years olds in one stark, cement-floor room were wearing scruffy jackets and sweaters. Half were bare foot.

One little girl wore only one pink plastic sandal. Asked where her other shoe was, she looked down at her foot and shrugged. ``Maybe someone else has it on,” she said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross supplies the orphanage with firewood and has given some sweaters and blankets, Uddin said. Shoes have been donated to the orphans, but mostly for the older children and usually in just two sizes -- six and nine, he added.

Thinking a visiting stranger could help get him another pair of shoes, one little boy said: ``I like my shoes, but do you have another pair? My shoes are size six, but my feet are size eight.”

The small children are cared for by two women, who are helped by the older girls. Eleven and 12-year-old girls walk around with little ones perched on their hips.

``My life is worse than the children,” said Dil Jan, an elderly woman who has worked at the orphanage for 17 years.

Still, the widow, without children of her own, refused to leave the orphanage when Taliban troops first took over Kabul in September 1996 and sent all working women home and closed all schools.

“These are my children. I wouldn't leave them,” Jan said.

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