Kabul, where childhood – and children – are cheap
It was three years ago, in a dusty refugee camp outside the northern Afghan city of Mazr-e-Sharif, that our camera was present when the deed was done.
A father, tears streaming down his cheeks, squatted in the morning sun, flanked by his other sons, daughters and wife wailing beneath her burkha. And in front of them, in scarf and stylish leather coat, a woman come up all the way from Kabul with money, with the agent brokering the deal.
In a matter of moments it was done and the man’s son, Qasem, then five years old, was sold for £800.
“Come on,” said the woman in the leather coat whom we will call Kahadiya, “it is time to go.”
And with small, high-pitched crying he is led from the family he will probably never see again. His father says simply that with the money, his family will not now starve over the coming winter.
Three years on, in a plush house in Kabul, Qasem sits with his mates and Gameboy, in front of the flatscreen TV in his front room. There is a pleasant private school during the week at a cost of around $80 per month – a fortune by Afghan standards. And life is good.
See our report from 2008: Afghanistan people’s war
“I like it here now – I don’t miss my real family. In any case they have now moved to Iran, I think.”
His father did pop by a year or two back to extract another couple of hundred dollars – but since that time has not been seen at all, and Qasem seems genuinely happy with his lot.
His “mother” says simply: “Now we have a son and I am happy to have been able to help at least one poor family in Afghanistan.”
He is certainly among the lucky ones. One NGO in the country says that 90 per cent of children who are sold, get forced into hard labour in slavery or near-slave conditions.
Some face even worse than that. This sounds scarcely credible, but there is a lively trade in body parts and internal organs, and sold children are often used for this purpose across Iran, Pakistan and India. How low can it go?
Out on the streets of Kabul you will see – everywhere – children who have not been sold for good or ill, but face a life of drudgery where they should have a childhood.
Home – for Najib and his six brothers and sisters – is an earth hovel you would scarcely keep an animal in, on a UK farm. The room’s been lent to Najib’s father after his wife died and he was left, as refugee, having returned from Pakistan where he fled the war.
Everyday at cock-crow, in the biting sub-zero of a terrible winter even by Kabuli standards, Najib sets out to pick up recyclable plastic from the streets and herd the family’s sheep to forage on the rubbish heaps at the same time.
It is back-breaking work and it will take around 10 hours or more to fill the sacks. If a punter arrives at a rubbish heap with a sack to deposit from the boot of his car, he will immediately be swarmed by the likes of Najib, desperate for the pickings.
On and on it goes, all through the day. He’s had no breakfast. He will get no dinner during the day, and his tea, finally after more than 12 hours, will be cooked back in that hovel by his father.
But only after Najib and his brother have sold off their plastic and bought a precious wafer biscuit – the one treat of the working day – before buying their evening naan bread and firewood.
In the hovel they jam – seven brothers and sisters, in a line, feet stretched out under the table to the precious warmth of the fire pot (see image). This is the playroom, dining room, sitting room and bedroom. You only move from here to venture out into the snow to the outside pit latrine – and only then if you really have to go.
And then, after a few hours’ sleep and oblivion, they will get up tomorrow and do it all again… and the next day… and the next day after that. For Najib and his brothers and sisters, things like a school, things like a childhood, are just very distant dreams.
Follow Alex Thomson on Twitter @alextomo