Amid the latest news from the war in Afghanistan—battles over Koran burnings, with members of the Afghan parliament calling for “jihad” against Americans and convoluted talks about talks between the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban—it’s important to remember that the war has caused untold casualties among civilians and the innocent, including children. In the last few weeks, there have been important reminders: a brilliant New York Times series of the deaths of dozens of children in a frozen refugee camp near Kabul, a devastating air strike by NATO that slaughtered eight children, and a terrific article in the Washington Post on the somber business of identifying, hauling and burying Afghanistan’s often anonymous civilian victims.
On February 3, the Times began what turned out to be an investigative series by Rod Nordland that depicted horrific conditions at a refugee camp for Afghans driven out of the areas where the war is most intense. The article began:
The following children froze to death in Kabul over the past three weeks after their families had fled war zones in Afghanistan for refugee camps here.
In all, it said, at least twenty-two children died in January and early February alone, and it asked:
After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable—and manageable—as the cold?
The article sparked outrage, initial denials from then incompetent government of Afghanistan, and outpourings of private aid. A follow-up piece by Nordland two days later said, in part:
The refugees’ biggest concerns are lack of food and firewood. Everything else is secondary. Few of the children have coats or warm clothes of any kind, other than the occasional ragged sweater. Most do not have socks, and shoes are often little more than plastic sandals.
Three days later, Nordland wrote a piece almost too difficult to read about a single family that had lost eight of its nine children, including a 3-month-old infant named Khan, to the cold and harsh conditions:
“After we had dinner he was crying all night of the cold,” Mr. Mohammad said. The family had no wood and was husbanding a small portion of paper and plastic that his daughter had scavenged that day. He said the boy had seemed healthy and was breast-feeding normally, though the family’s dinner consisted only of tea and bread. But he kept crying. “Finally we started a fire, but it wasn’t enough,” Mr. Mohammad said. By 1 a.m. the boy was stiff and lifeless, he said.
Even by the standards of destitution in these camps, Mr. Mohammad’s story is a hard-luck one; Khan was the eighth of his nine children to die.
Even as Khan’s family buried the eighth of its offspring, eight more children perished in a single air strike in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan, more anonymous casualties of the ten-and-a-half-year war to nowhere. The incident followed the usual pattern: first revealed by President Karzai in an angry announcement, then a haphazard investigation by NATO, Afghan officials and others, with the Times noting: