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Afghanistan: ‘We can’t do anything but watch children die’

Mother, Nigar, removes the oxygen tube from his nose and puts her finger under his nostril to see if she can feel his breath. She starts to cry when she realizes that her son is gone. There are no working ventilators at this hospital in Afghanistan.

Mothers hold oxygen tubes near their children’s noses because they can’t get masks that fit their little faces and women are looking to replace trained personnel or medical equipment.

According to UNICEF, 167 children die every day in Afghanistan from diseases that can and should be treated with the right medicines.

These are staggering numbers. However, this is an estimate. And when you walk into the pediatric ward of a major hospital in the western province of Ghor, you’ll wonder if that’s an understatement.

Several rooms are filled with sick children, and each bed has at least two deformed bodies from pneumonia. Only two nurses take care of 60 children.

In one room we saw at least 24 babies in critical condition. The children needed constant supervision in the intensive care unit, which was not possible at this hospital.

But for the million people living in Gora, this basic facility is still the most well-equipped public hospital they have access to.

A hospital ward in Gora where mothers sit with their sick children. distraught mothers remain in these Afghan hospitals where children die from preventable or treatable diseases. Public healthcare in Afghanistan has never been adequate, and foreign money which almost entirely funded it was frozen in August 2021 when the Taliban seized power.

Over the past 20 months, we have visited hospitals and clinics across this country, and witnessed them collapsing. Now the Taliban’s recent ban on women working for NGOs means it’s becoming harder for humanitarian agencies to operate, putting even more children and babies at risk.

I’m also a mother, and when I saw the baby die, I felt like I’ve lost my own child Nurse Edima Sultan.

Already defeated by a lack of resources, medics at the Ghor hospital used whatever little they had to try to revive Tayabullah. Dr Ahmad Samadi was called in to check his condition, fatigue and stress visible on his face. He put the stethoscope to Tayabullah’s chest.

His heartbeat was weak. Nurse Edima Sultani came running with an oxygen pump. She held it to Tayabulla’s mouth and blew air into it. Then Dr. Samadi pressed his thumb on the boy’s tiny chest. Tayabulla’s grandfather Gavsaddin watched in amazement.

He said his grandson was suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition. “It took eight hours on broken roads to get him from our Charsadda region,” said Gavsaddin. With only dry bread to eat, the family scraped together money to pay for the trip.

Attempts to revive the grandson continued for half an hour. The Sultani nurse turned to Nigar and said Tayabullah was dead. The sudden silence in the room was broken by Nigar’s sobs. Her infant son was wrapped in a blanket and handed over to Gosaddin. His family took him home. Tayabullah must be alive.

Any disease he has is curable. “I am a mother too, and when she sees her child die, she feels as if she has lost her own child. It broke my heart to see my mother cry. It hurt my conscience,” said nurse Sultani, who is often on duty around the clock.

“We don’t have the equipment and we don’t have enough trained staff, especially women. When caring for many children in critical condition, which child should be checked first? We can do nothing but watch the baby die.” Hospitals do not have oxygen masks small enough to fit a child’s face.

A few minutes later, in the next room, we saw another child in critical condition struggling to breathe with an oxygen mask on his face 2-year-old Gulbadan was born with a heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus. She was diagnosed in this hospital 6 months ago.

Doctors said the condition is not uncommon and difficult to treat. But Gore’s main hospital isn’t equipped to perform routine surgeries that could fix it.

She also has no medications needed. Gulbadan’s grandmother, Afva Gul, lowered her little hand to stop the little girl from removing her mask.

“We borrowed her money to get her to Kabul, but we had to send her back because we couldn’t afford her surgery,” she said. They turned to non-governmental organizations for financial support. Their details were registered but have not received a response since.

Gulbadan’s father, Navroz, stroked her forehead as he tried to calm his daughter, who trembled with every breath. The tension was evident on his face as he pursed his lips and sighed.

He said that Gulbadan had recently started talking to her, forming her first words to him and other members of her family.

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