It is almost a city within a city – separated from the rest of Kabul by walls of mud. Inside lies one of the largest refugee camps in the country: Charahi Qambar. Its residents are internally displaced Afghans who have fled the fighting in their home provinces to head north.
It’s hard to imagine a place more desperate; the alleys here have been turned into rivers of mud this November day. The rain is cold, and the cold seeps through those walls, through wet and muddy shoes, almost through one’s very soul.
Charahi Qambar is a place that holds painful memories for me.
The last time I was here, seven years ago, I was trying to do a story on the Afghans who had fled the fighting in the south – and what the conditions were like for the women among the internally displaced.
I’d interviewed a woman who lost her husband and several children in the fighting in Helmand Province; in fact, I was hoping to see if she was still here since I never got to tell her story all those years ago.
As I was leaving the camp that morning, three masked men, armed with AK-47s, stabbed me and kidnapped me, throwing me into the back of a car. They drove me to nearby Wardak province, where they held me hostage in a hole in the ground for what seemed like a lifetime.
WATCH: Freelance cameraman Sat Nandlall photographed some of the Afghan families In Kabul’s Charahi Qambar camp
It was only for a month, but not a day went by in that dirty hole that I did not think about the widow whose story I had wanted to tell. I’ve been wanting to come back to Charahi Qambar all these years, and I was finally able to come this year.
On this rainy fall day, I tried to look for that woman from Helmand, but I could not find her. I only hope she is still alive and has perhaps been able to return to her home in the south.
But stories like hers are commonplace here. In fact, the first woman I met is also from Helmand, also a widow. She lives alone in a tiny windowless room made of mud walls.
“You see my house,” Khor Bibi says, seated on the floor of the camp elder’s hut. She is wrapped in a heavy blanket, several grandchildren tucked in next to her. “It is all mud. Our rooms are made of mud. These are hardships. What did we do to get here?”
She tells me her family were farmers in Helmand; they were not rich, but they had a roof over their heads and were rarely short of food.
The camp is more crowded than I remembered; the dusty road my kidnappers drove into is now an alleyway too narrow for cars. It’s no surprise when Mans Nyberg, the UNHCR representative in Kabul, tells me the numbers. There are now more than 1,500 families in here, which adds up to more than 7,500 people.
That’s almost double the number seven years ago: There were about 500 families and just over 4,000 people.
Throughout the country, just under a million Afghans are internally displaced because of violence. This year, Nyberg tells me, “it’s close to 300,000 new cases, with the highest number registered in October, a direct result of the violence in Kunduz.”
The Taliban overran Kunduz in September, taking the city and shocking the government when its own security forces collapsed under pressure. Many Afghans who fled the city are afraid to return, even after the Afghan security forces took the city back.
Nyberg recalls an incident in December 2013, when 170 families left Charahi Qambar to return to their home in the southern province of Uruzgan.
“After 14 days in Uruzgan,” he said, “the Taliban started killing them because they had come back. So they all came back to Kabul.”
The government unveiled a national strategy in February 2014 for dealing with internally displaced people, which includes preventing displacement, dealing with displacement, and returning the displaced. But progress has been stagnant, as the numbers indicate, largely because insecurity is growing.
Khor Bibi dreams of returning home to Helmand someday, but that province is growing more unstable by the day. According to some reports, the Taliban control about 80 per cent of the province, after Afghan forces surrendered their weapons in November.
Her entire family – nine sons and four of her five daughters – lives in the camp as well. One of her sons, Mir Ahmad, says Afghanistan is falling apart.
“It is worsening by the day,” he says. “It has been fighting in Afghanistan for 35 years. We are all cursed.”
The pelting rain on the day I visit is a harbinger of the season residents here fear the most: winter. Past winters have brought death to this place, mostly for the children who wander around without shoes. Mir Ahmad tells me he’s been asking for wood to heat their homes, and more blankets, and sheets. He does not want his children to suffer the same fate. They’re already suffering enough, he says. There’s no school here; no food; no warmth. The government has forgotten about them, he adds.
“What should the children do? They are human beings. They are the children of Afghanistan. We are not human beings in Afghanistan?”
16×9’s “Losing Afghanistan” airs Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 at 7pm.