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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 17:57 GMT
The brave children of Afghanistan
Children in Kabul
Many Afghan children are the family breadwinners
By the BBC's Richard Miron in Kabul

The weather has suddenly turned colder in Kabul. The sun is hidden behind the clouds and the jagged peaks of the mountains which overlook the city are thick with snow.

The street children are sheltering from the chill - huddling in doorways. One boy I often see charging around near the BBC office covers his head with his ragged and blackened jacket to give himself some relief from the cold.

There are numerous children who wait outside the door of the office hoping for some work. Most of them are shoeshine boys and I have got to know a number of them.

Child injured by bombing in Kabul
Some children have become casualties of war
There is Mafouz whose serious face contrasts with his pink Mickey Mouse baseball cap, and Nasir - who is painfully thin, and constantly asks the same question: "Mister, how are you?"

And then there is Majid, with his brown curly mop of hair and cheeky smile.

My favourite is Nasim, a shy boy, who talks slowly in his carefully learned English. His sombre expression belies his young age - just 14. I have tried to give all the boys work and as a result my shoes have never shone so brightly.

Afghan poverty

They all have similar tales - a father dead either from the war or illness, numerous brothers and sisters, and a family dependent on their meagre earnings for their daily bread.

Nasim's elder brother hasn't been able to work since he was injured in an American bombing raid a few weeks ago

One day I asked Nasim if he would show me his home and introduce me to his family so I could understand his life and the life of the other street children here.

And so, awkwardly, he led me to his poor neighbourhood, barely a mile from the well-heeled district that houses the BBC office.

His home, like all the others in the area, is made of mud and straw. The road outside is just packed earth with a stream of noxious liquid running down the middle.

Nasim introduced me to his elder brother - who has not been able to work since he was injured in an American bombing raid a few weeks ago.

I also met his mother who showed me the family's one small bedroom in which six people sleep packed together. There was no furniture, no cupboards, no spare clothes left hanging, not even any glass in the windows - just cardboard. And no fire to keep them warm at night.

Family breadwinner

Nasim earns about 30,000 Afghanis a day - about $1 - cleaning shoes. With that he buys the basics for his family, mostly just bread and sugar. Rice, he told me, is a treat - and the last occasion he ate meat was a year ago.

I asked him how he felt about his situation. "I am happy and not happy," he told me. "Happy because I work, but not happy because I cannot earn enough to bring my family everything they need."

Nasim is not exceptional in this country - tens of thousands of children work on the streets of Kabul cleaning cars or shoes - toiling away in markets and workshops as their family's main breadwinners.

Life for children in Afghanistan is a battle for survival - in which many do not make it. The statistics are a tragic illustration of the effects of decades of war, misrule, and underdevelopment.

Afghan child
The young face an uncertain future
Three out of 10 children die before the age of five, and half all those who survive that long are severely malnourished. The United Nations estimates that 35,000 children will die this year alone from measles - simply because they have not been vaccinated.

In some parts of the country none of the children have been inoculated against disease and the even highest rate is a mere 30% in Kabul. The situation appears to be unremittingly depressing - yet it is the children who are also the greatest carriers of hope.

Future dreams

Nasim and his friends attend a school specially established for street kids. Every one of the boys is ambitious - they want to be translators, carpenters or drivers. Asking them if they feel hopeful for the future they all reply unhesitatingly - why not?

It is very humbling for a westerner used to the frivolities and luxuries of everyday life to be confronted by such difficulty yet such positive determination.

One day Nasim and his friend Majid - the small boy with the cheeky face - got hold of a rare treat - they had borrowed a football, so I challenged them to a quick game. They marked a couple of goalposts on the street with the worn wooden boxes containing their brushes and polish.

Afghan refugees
Many Afghan children have fled to refugee camps
For half an hour or so we had a raucous kick around, in which I was resoundingly beaten. For that short time they were just children - out playing, having a good time, freed of their weighty responsibilities.

For me, it was one of the most enjoyable games I have played, and the most poignant.

I am about to depart from Kabul, and I do so with a sense of concern for the fate of Nasim and his all his friends. The peace here is fragile and the dangers are everywhere - from the cold to the landmines.

I have begun to say my goodbyes to them and they have thanked me for my custom. But I feel I owe them a far greater debt of gratitude for showing me that such strength of character can be borne by those so young.

And that - hopefully - bodes well for this country as it attempts to build a new future.

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