An Afghan woman with a child seeks alms from passers-by on a bridge covered with snow in Kabul. AFP
Afghan farmer Abdul Qaher cannot remember a worse drought. Unable to feed his four children after losing his harvest, he took the drastic decision to sell his possessions and move to the western city of Herat to look for work.
Days later, on Aug.15, the Taliban seized power, triggering an economic meltdown that has tipped millions into poverty and made Afghanistan one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The Taliban's lightning takeover saw billions of dollars in Afghan assets frozen overseas. International funding, which had supported 75% of government spending, also dried up overnight. Banks ran short of cash, millions lost work or went unpaid, the local currency nosedived, while prices rocketed.
Hunger and destitution seem "poised to kill more Afghans than all the bombs and bullets of the past two decades," the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank said, calling donors' suspension of all but emergency aid "the biggest culprit."
But finding a way to avert catastrophe has been complicated by a slew of long-standing UN, US and other sanctions on the Islamist group, which remains a designated terrorist organisation.
In late December, the UN Security Council and the United States gave aid agencies a green light to scale up life-saving assistance without fear of breaking sanctions.
But analysts said humanitarian aid was only a sticking plaster - liquidity must be injected into the economy to revive business, trade and livelihoods, and frozen money released to pay for crucial services. "This money is Afghans' money, and these sanctions are hurting vulnerable people," Qaher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a video call from Herat.
Qaher is among 3.5 million Afghans displaced by drought and insecurity. His family shares one room in a camp on the outskirts of Herat. There is no water or electricity and the temperature falls below freezing at night.
The 45-year-old farmer regularly treks into Herat to find rubbish to burn so the family can cook rice and potatoes. He and his wife skip meals so their children can eat. With a record 23 million people — more than half the population — struggling to eat, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) country representative Mary-Ellen McGroarty said Afghanistan faced a "tsunami of hunger."
Farmers often move to look for jobs in lean times, but the economic crisis has scuppered other labour options.
"It's created a complete catastrophe. It's taken away Plan B," McGroarty said from the capital, Kabul. "I've had women drop at my feet screaming for assistance. I've met many men who are scavenging in bins for dry bread to feed their kids."
When she travelled to the northern province of Badakhshan, elderly farmers who had lived through 19 governments told her they had never seen it so bad.
"They told me they nearly preferred the war to the torture and torment of the hunger they were facing," she said.
Malek, a 25-year-old farmer from western Afghanistan, used to supplement his income from growing chickpeas, wheat and cumin with casual labour — but nobody is hiring.
He has started selling the few sheep he bought for breeding. Other Afghans are selling everything from motorbikes to jewellery and land. Some are marrying off young daughters for income.
A child eats bread at the Wazir Akbar Khan hill. AFP
"Winter will be very, very difficult," said Malek, who only uses one name. "Many people will have to sell assets to buy food." Many men in his region have gone to Iran. Malek was considering joining them, but recently received wheat seeds from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which he hopes will help him stay put.
FAO country representative Richard Trenchard said he had never seen a crisis worsen so quickly and dramatically, adding that keeping farmers on their land was critical to stave off famine.
"To put it bluntly, farmers don't die in their fields, they don't die with their herds. People die on the roads and in camps when they've been forced to leave."
"Today I have been heartbroken to see that the families are willing to sell their children to feed other family members,” Charles said. "So it’s the right time for the humanitarian community to stand up and stay with the people of Afghanistan.”
The Taliban official said criminals are also not allowed in coffee shops. According to him, most insecurities, kidnappings, robberies and destructive actions can be planned in such coffee shops.
Stakes are high for the talks which follow a week of US-Taliban negotiations with both sides eyeing a resolution to the bloody 18-year conflict.
Two of those killed were on the train and one was in the truck, Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Cpl. Justin Dunn said. Officials were still trying to determine the exact number of people aboard. Seven cars derailed, the patrol said.
The leaders vowed that Russian President Vladimir Putin and those responsible would be held to account for Monday's strike in the city of Kremenchuk, carried out during the shopping mall's busiest hours.
The attacks shattered apartment buildings, video footage showed. The blast gouged a vast crater in front of the school, with debris strewn about classrooms, their windows all blown out.