Salim Khan and his family live in the Charahi Qambar camp for internally displaced people on the western edge of Kabul. Two of his children, at 5 months old and 18 months old, have serious breathing issues. | All photos by KERN HENDRICKS for UNDARK

In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Shazia is only 5 months old, but she already has the cough of a heavy smoker. Near her crib, in a mud-brick room in a camp for displaced people in western Kabul, sits a line of medicine bottles. The labels are torn and faded: amoxicillin, paracetamol, cefixime, cough syrup. Most are empty. The air has the acrid tinge of plastic, and the corner of a shopping bag protrudes from a small stove in the corner of the room.

Shazia’s father, 25-year-old Salim Khan, offers a resigned gesture towards the battered stove.

“All the children are ill,” he says, speaking through a translator. His youngest daughter has a bad cough, and his 18-month-old son has serious breathing issues too. These issues, he says, are “caused by this plastic smoke.”

Khan’s family is one of roughly 1,200, he says, that live in the Charahi Qambar camp for internally displaced people, or IDPs, on the western edge of the Afghan capital. Although many of the families have been there for years, widespread fighting in 2021 spurred a fresh influx. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 736,900 Afghans were internally displaced in 2021, many ending up in camps like this one.

Shazia, Salim Khan’s 5-month-old daughter, has a persistent cough, likely caused by plastic fumes that come from the family’s stove. Like many families, they can’t afford to burn coal or wood. “All the children are ill,” Khan says.

Life is hard in the Charahi Qambar IDP camp. At the tail end of winter, nighttime temperatures can drop to freezing, and the winding alleyways between houses turn into a mud bog. Even as rooms and walls collapse due to melting snow, families huddle around the metal stoves that feature in nearly every home. But keeping warm is not as simple as throwing another log on the fire.

A typical bundle of firewood, weighing around 15 pounds, costs the equivalent of just a few dollars. For families teetering on the edge — a 2021 United Nations Development Program report indicated that 97 percent of Afghans may face abject poverty by the middle of 2022 — even this price can be out of reach. Work is scarce, and Afghan families are often large; it’s not uncommon for a single breadwinner to support 10 or more people, from newborn babies to elderly grandparents.

The most immediate dangers of the stoves are clear: Each winter, hospitals treat numerous patients with severe — and often preventable — burns from curtains that caught alight, or stoves that were left unattended overnight.

Families like Khan’s also face health issues from breathing in smoke from burning plastic and other materials. Burning plastics release toxic compounds including phthalates and dioxins. Phthalates have been linked with multiple health issues, from insulin resistance to various reproductive issues, and infants and children may be especially vulnerable. And according to the World Health Organization, dioxins are also linked to problems with reproductive health, as well as issues with the immune, developing nervous, and endocrine systems. Even Afghan families who can afford to buy firewood are still at risk, as scientific research has increasingly shown that wood smoke can be damaging to human health.

Since conflicts reached a head last summer, many nongovernmental organizations are again delivering food, cash, and medical aid to Afghanistan. But Khan, who relies on sporadic laboring jobs to earn a meager income for his family, says that many in the Charahi Qambar camp have largely been left to fend for themselves when it comes to heating their homes. No one has given them help for firewood, he says, even though it was one of the biggest problems this winter. “On the radio, we heard that NGOs are giving cash to people, but so far they didn’t give us any cash,” he adds. “Just a small amount of food, which is not enough.”

Qargha Reservoir in winter, on the outskirts of Kabul.


Life Inside Charahi Qambar Camp

In 2021, nearly three-quarters of a million Afghans were displaced inside the country, many ending up in camps.

Karim Ahmad Khan, a young community leader living in the Charahi Qambar camp for internally displaced people. He says few families can afford to heat their homes with anything but plastic.
Small metal stoves, or bukharis, are a source of heat for many Afghan homes.
In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Families in the camp burn textiles, plastic, and other flammable garbage since coal and wood are too expensive.

In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Each winter in Afghanistan, hospitals treat numerous patients with severe burns originating from the use of stoves.

In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Karim Ahmad Khan holds fuel sources used by his family: second-hand coal collected from the street or from garbage, small pieces of wood, and pinecones.

In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Burning plastic can release toxic compounds that have been linked to multiple health issues, with infants and children being especially vulnerable.

In a Cold Winter, Afghans Struggle to Keep Warm

Even when a family can afford to buy wood, their health may suffer due to exposure to wood smoke.

Limited electricity, which is mostly used to charge mobile phones, is provided by solar panels for a few families in the Charahi Qambar camp.
Even though heating was one of the biggest problems in the Charahi Qambar camp this winter, says Salim Khan, many were left to fend for themselves, receiving no aid for firewood from nongovernmental organizations.
Without proper heating in the winter, temperatures inside homes can drop to near freezing overnight.
Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the cold.
When the snow melts, the Charahi Qambar camp becomes a muddy bog.
Around 736,900 Afghans were internally displaced in 2021. Many ended up in camps like Charahi Qambar, where they face difficult living conditions.
As the snow melts, walls built on unstable ground may collapse.
Residents repair the wall of a house that collapsed during a period of snow melt.
Roughly 1,200 families are housed in the Charahi Qambar camp, according to resident Salim Khan.
The Khan family has used multiple medicines to treat Shazia’s cough. Most of the bottles are now empty.
A winter evening just outside of the Charahi Qambar camp, on the western edge of Kabul.



A Family Endures Tragedy

For a family with six young children, an accidental fire brings even more hardship.

On a cold February morning, Sayed Muhammad, who, like many Afghans, does not have a last name, poured what he thought was motor oil into the family bukhari to help ignite wet firewood. But it was gasoline, which engulfed the whole room in flames, he says. He was badly burned.
“My clothes were burned, and I couldn’t see anything,” Sayed Muhammad says. “I tried to open the door but couldn’t succeed. I was worried about my children, who were with me in the room, and I broke the windows.”
Sayed Muhammad and his children managed to escape the room where the fire started, but as he landed on the ground outside, he passed out.
Two of his sons found their father unconscious and took him to the hospital, along with other injured family members. Synthetic blankets, melted by the fire, were thrown out.
The hands of Sayed Muhammad’s 9-year-old after the fire. Two of his sons were badly burned in the accident.
One of Sayed Muhammad’s younger sons, age 7, now has severe burns on both of his hands.
A member of Sayed Muhammad’s family stands under a piece of cloth that melted when the bukhari erupted in flames.
Sayed Muhammad’s eldest son, with a burned hand wrapped in a bandage.
Shah Koko, Sayed Muhammad’s wife, was badly burned on her face and hands.
Sayed Muhammad’s injuries forced him to quit his job at a local gas station — leaving the family’s lone breadwinner without an income.
Sayed Muhammad, his wife, and their six young children now live with his brother’s family. The 13-member household lives on the income of that brother, who makes a little less than three U.S. dollars a day.



Sources of Heat

While wood and coal sellers struggle to make ends meet, the price of fuel is too steep for those living in poverty.

Mahmadullah, a young man who runs his father’s coal business in northwest Kabul. “Business is going down about 50 percent from the past year,” he says.
A customer purchases coal from Mahmadullah at his storefront.
Despite a drop in sales, coal is still a popular fuel source in Afghanistan.
Muhammad Nasir sells wood from his store in Kabul. He says he makes only a few cents on every bundle of wood after expenses.
A coal delivery worker in west Kabul.
A fresh snowfall covers the streets of Paghman District, west of Kabul. For families living below the poverty line, snowfall and freezing temperatures bring a host of challenges. A U.N. report released last year estimates that 97 percent of Afghans may face abject poverty by mid-2022.


This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.