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'We Live Like Slaves': War, Widespread Corruption Take Toll on Afghan Working Poor

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Each day before dawn, 10-year-old Kameron goes to work at a brick factory with his father and other relatives outside Kabul. For many Afghan children, school is a luxury his family can no longer afford. His father Atikula supports his family of eight plus other young family members and nephews. Signs of hardship are everywhere. 

Children as Young as Five Work Alongside Adults

You can see kids all over Kabul, begging or working any job they can. Outside the city, children as young as five or six work at brick kilns in the sweltering heat. 

"There was a time when my father was not able to earn enough money and I had to leave school and start working with my father. So after I started working I stopped going to school," Kameron said. 

AtiKula's family comes from a province where there's been heavy fighting and is a stronghold for both the Taliban and the Islamic State. Brick factory owners offer people here loans for basic necessities, forcing families to work them off during the summer months. Workers say a family of 10 can bring in an average of $12 to $18 a day.

No Time for School – Everyone Has to Work to Survive

"My children wake up in the morning and right after prayers they come here for work so they don't have time for school, AtiKula said. "These days if you don't work you can't survive. A bag of wheat flour is around 18 US dollars in the market. So if we all don't work we won't be able to afford the 18 dollars to buy it."

A United Nations report released last year shows more than two million Afghan children ages six to 14 are part of the workforce. Child labor laws are rarely enforced, especially in rural areas. Afghanistan's economy grew by only two percent last year, the slowest rate in South Asia. In addition to the lingering conflict and drought, Afghanistan is seen as among the most corrupt countries in the world. Much of the aid from the US and other countries ends up in the hands of former warlords, who enjoy fortunes, living in gated compounds and cruising around in motorcades. 

Anger Rises Against Afghanistan's Elites

This has led to widespread anger against the elites here, leading to an increase in the ranks of the Taliban, which now controls about half the country. The insurgents talked with the US recently hoping for a deal to get foreign forces out of the country. 

A World Bank report from July shows an agreement with the Taliban could bring back the economy by encouraging the return of capital and skilled workers from overseas – but only if the security situation improves. 

Shubham Chaudhuri, the former World Bank country director for Afghanistan, says more than half of his country can't meet their basic needs. 

Living on Less than a Dollar a Day

"The amount considered necessary to meet basic needs a dollar a day is what we estimate that a person would need to have basic satisfy their basic needs. And it turns out, unfortunately, that more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day," Chaudhuri said. "But even more striking was the fact that almost three-quarters of the population was close to that level. So I think the state of poverty in Afghanistan today is that it's deep and it's widespread." 

Jan Agha, a 65-year-old who works alongside AtiKula's family in the brick kilns, sees little hope for the future. He's been working to pay off loans for more than 30 years, 20 of them spent as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan. 

Generational Poverty: "We Live Like Slaves"

Unfortunately, the brick kilns have turned into a family business. His four sons are already on the assembly line and he expects his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren will do the same. 

"We always think about our future but we never know how long we'll have to live with these economic problems, and when we'll be able to live our own lives and breathe in freedom," Agha said. "Right now, we live like slaves."

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