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Bitter winter kills Afghan children fleeing war


Fleeing Nato bombardment and Taliban intimidation, thousands of Afghans in refugee camps in the capital Kabul face a new enemy: an unusually bitter winter that is killing their children.

Del Agha, a farmer from the southern province of Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency, left his home and orchards four years ago after a Nato air strike that he says killed several villagers.

Last week he lost one of his two children, a three year-old girl, to the freezing temperatures.

"It was very cold that night. When I woke up my baby daughter was dead," he said.

His second child, also a girl and only a few months old, is coughing and he says he fears for her life at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp, one of several settlements for displaced people in and around Kabul.

"Life is very hard and I'm worried for my other child," he told AFP at his camp home -- a hole in the ground with mud walls about a metre high covered with filthy cloth and torn pieces of old tents.

Despite the billions of dollars in aid that have flowed into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Khair Mohammad, 12, and his family are also from the south and came to the camp, on the southwestern outskirts of Kabul, from Helmand province.

They fled after the Taliban killed his uncle by hanging him from a tree and running a sharp knife from side to side across his chest and belly, accusing him of spying for foreign forces.

Now heavy snowstorms blow through the family's huts.

"It's very cold," Mohammad told AFP, while describing how the Taliban executed his uncle in Sangin district, the scene of some of the heaviest battles between NATO-led forces and the Islamist rebels in 2009 and 2010.

"At nights it gets even colder. Since the cold started, so many children have died. We bury them over there," he said, pointing towards a nearby hillside.

According to official figures at least 15 children have lost their lives in three of about 40 such camps in Kabul from cold over the past month. Residents say the toll is twice as high.

"In our records we have 15 people, almost all of them children, dead over the past one month. They died of cold," Ghulam Sakhi Kargar Noorughli, a public health ministry spokesman told AFP.

More than half of the deaths occurred in Charahi Qambar camp, he added.

The decade-long war -- an insurgency led by remnants of the Taliban -- and crushing poverty have pushed waves of internal refugees towards the capital.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says about 447,000 Afghans have been forced to abandon their homes due to war, poverty and economic difficulties since the Taliban were ousted from power in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Last year alone, 185,000 people had to leave their villages -- a 45 percent increase over the previous year, Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman told AFP.

Most of the displaced remain in the south, where the Taliban and other insurgents remain strong, making it difficult for relief groups to deliver aid.

"Limited access (to displaced communities) impacts data collection and delivering assistance," Farhad said.

There are about 18,000 people settled in what the agency calls "informal settlements" in and around Kabul. Out of those, Farhad said about 1,500 are "conflict-induced" migrants, while others left their homes and villages due to natural disasters or economic hardship.

In the Charahi Qambar camp, the freezing weather adds a sting to the poverty.

"It's cold and my kids are hungry. I don't know what to do," said a woman who refused to give her name to a male reporter under the moral code of rural southern Afghanistan, where women are isolated from outsiders.

She said she arrived in the camp after a Nato air strike killed two of her five children in 2008. "It was in the middle of night when our home was bombed. My kids were buried under the rubble."

Now, she added: "We are cold and we're hungry and there's no one to help us."