27 Feb 2012

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.

If you want to show your support to Afghan families like the ones we’ve featured, you can do so through Oxfam and Save The Children.

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

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21 reader comments

  1. BrianC says:

    Brilliant, moving, heart-breaking story. Channel 4 does this better than anyone. Congratulations Alex and team.

  2. CathyScott says:

    What an incredibly moving report. We need journalists to highlight these appalling situations and your piece tonight really hit home. With a young child warm and asleep upstairs in my centrally heated house it again showed me how extraordinarily lucky we are in this country. I hope this report enables more aid and development to reach areas such as this.

  3. Flip says:

    wow! seems to put everything in perspective. Money, unfortunatelly dictates how people live around the globe, and to be in a position were you have to sell a member of your family so you can eat, really is horrendous. Is it any wonder why there is so much anger in the world, and anti-capitalist sentiment.

  4. byrdele says:

    I had decided never to blog again on Chan 4 news stories. Although I never intended to do so, I think I come across as pedantic and maybe even as an agitator, because I disagree often with the other bloggers. But I have to blog. I never had children of my own. But I work with them. And although some of what I see here makes me cry, this really wrenches my heart. The best way we individuals can help? Seek out organizations such as World Vision, Salvation Army, Oxfam, Save the Children and other both faith and non-faith based orgs that help people help these children (and their families in the process). Please, please… point this out in newscasts if you can do so. Please let your readers and those who watch you on TV know that there are so many outlets. One of the orgs used to say that we save the world one child at a time, or something like that. We’ll never bring world peace and total prosperity this way, and maybe that’s why people shy away from doing anything – a sense of hopelessness in helping people live better lives. That’s why it takes a lot of people to adopt a child, buy a goat for a family (for the income the cheese brings), purchase books and desks for children who have none… World Vision is so good that the N. Korean govt invited its representatives into the country during the great famine. A completely atheistic country inviting a faith-based org into its country. That is because WV gets things done. But so do the others. Thank you.

  5. Claire says:

    Thanks for the sobering, moving report tonight. Bless those little kids at the end, such a hard life so young. Do you know of any charities working in Kabul with displaced families like them? I feel moved to make a donation.

  6. Joanne ryan says:


    I feel very upset after seeing the news tonight and he story of Najib and his family, I have a young family myself.

    I was wondering if you could direct me on how I might go about sending a financial donation to help this family?

    Yours sincerely

    Jo Ryan

    1. ridetherhythm says:

      I too would like to make a donation to help this family…please?

  7. sue_m says:

    Tragic this can be in the 21st century. When women are repressed and treated as little more than slaves with no rights to use birth control by the men of the country then there will always be large families and too many mouths to feed.
    But does this dire poverty and desperation come as a result of the war/occupation or has it always been so and this is actually what the taliban are fighting to keep?

  8. Saltaire Sam says:

    I despair. The millions, perhaps billions of dollars that have been poured into Afghanistan yet there are stories like this.

    It seems that across the world, the bulk of the population don’t count for anything more than units of production. they matter only in as much as they can make others wealthy.

    That mythical alien, returning to Mars would surely report on humans as lacking in humanity.

  9. Maz says:

    I was very upset to watch this poor family in Afghanistan and felt very guilty this morning sitting in an M & S cafe eating a Pecan Danish, thinking of those children collecting rubbish all day so they can provide a little food that will feed their family.

    I am looking for a charity that is working in Afghanistan that I can support.

  10. Philip Edwards says:


    This was a moving report that would drive anybody with human sensitivity close to tears. And impotent anger.

    Money and military resources were mobilised for mass murder and drone assassinations of the innocent.

    Yet still we get this tragedy on a widespread scale.

    So much for the so-called “War on Terror.” So much for Western “help.”

    And it is all being done in our name.

  11. Judith Edgington says:

    Dear Mr Thompson
    Please can you tell us if there is any way that we could financially sponsor Najib and his family directly (in your 27/02/12 report). We are only interested in direct sponsorship not sending more money to STC etc.

  12. Mr S M Ismail says:

    Home – for Najib and his six brothers and sisters was a very moving report and I wish to help this particular family. Is there any way I can help them financially. Please email me.

  13. Jacqueline says:

    Dear Alex,
    Your reporting means you get straight to the heart of these people and somehow we on the other side of the world can help.
    I watched your report on the children of Kabul last night and was so moved by the sheer sadness of lost childhoods of those children.I wish to help the family that you reported on by financially helping now. money that will go directly to helping them leave this live of misery.
    Please send me information.Kind regards

    1. Karin says:

      I feel exactly the same and would like to help to

  14. Karin says:

    How can we help these children?

  15. ricky_villa says:

    Did anybody get any success with providing financial support to this family?

    1. ridetherhythm says:

      An update for those touched by this story on CH4 news & it’s viewers helping this family….

  16. Rakhsana says:

    Dear Alex,
    I haven’t stopped thinking about this heartbreaking report, even though it’s been nearly 2 months since the report was broadcast. Please please please could you let me know how I could make a donation to the poor families you focussed on and how I could donate to charities which help families like those shown in your report? Your help would be greatly appreciated.

  17. Leila Naseri says:

    Dear Alex,

    My sisters and I haven’t stopped thinking about this family and their tragic and heart breaking story and would like to make a contribution. I would be grateful if you or your team could let me know how I should go about to make a donation. Thank you so much and God bless you and your team for helping this family!!!

  18. Jacqueline says:

    You can donate, Alex will forward details to you, when I watched I felt so sad but not helpless as Alex replied and now I have donated some money this month and I will each month to enable this family and hopefully many more to come out of this pitiful existence…a little from us can really make a difference.

Comments are closed.