AP PHOTOS: Backbreaking work for kids in Afghan brick kilns

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Nabila works 10 hours or more a day, doing the heavy, dirty work of packing mud into molds and hauling wheelbarrows full of bricks. At the age of 12, she has been working in brick factories for half her life and is probably the oldest of her colleagues.

The already high number of children working in Afghanistan is growing, fueled by the economic collapse after the Taliban took over the country and the world stopped providing financial aid just over a year ago.

A recent survey by Save the Children estimates that half of the country’s families have children working to keep food on the table while livelihoods collapse.

Nowhere is it clearer than in the many brick factories along the highway north of the capital, Kabul. The conditions in the blast furnaces are tough even for adults. But in almost all of them, children as young as four or five work with their families from early morning until dark in the heat of summer.

Children do every step of the brick making process. They lug canisters of water, carry the wooden brick molds filled with mud to set out in the sun to dry. They load and wheelbarrow full of dried bricks to the kiln to be fired, and then wheelbarrow full of fired bricks back. They rummage through the smoldering charcoal being burned in the kiln for bits that can still be used, inhaling the soot and scorching their fingers.

The children work with determination because they know little but the needs of their families. When asked about toys or games, they smile and shrug. Few went to school.

Nabila, the 12-year-old, has been working in brick factories since she was five or six. Like many other brickworkers, her family works part of the year in a kiln near Kabul and part of the year in one outside of Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border.

A few years ago she was allowed to go to school in Jalalabad. She would like to go back to school but can’t – her family needs her work to survive, she said with a gentle smile.

“All we can think about is work,” she said.

Mohabbat, a 9-year-old boy, paused for a moment with a pained expression on his face as he carried a load of charcoal. “My back hurts,” he said.

When asked what he wished for, he first asked, “What is a wish?” Once it was explained, he paused for a moment and thought. “I want to go to school and eat well,” he said, then added, “I want to work well so we can have a home.”

The landscape around the factories is desolate and barren, with black, sooty smoke pouring out of the kiln chimneys. Families live in ramshackle mud houses next to blast furnaces, each with a corner where they make their bricks. For most, a meal of the day is bread soaked in tea.

Rahim has three children who work with him in a brick factory, aged 5 to 12. The children were at school and Rahim, who goes by one name, said he had long resisted taking them to work. But even before the Taliban came to power, as the war raged on and the economy deteriorated, he said he had no choice.

“There’s no other way,” he said. “How can they learn if we have no bread to eat? Survival is more important.”

Workers are paid the equivalent of $4 for every 1,000 bricks they make. An adult working alone can’t complete that amount in a day, but with the children’s help, they can make 1,500 bricks a day, the workers said.

According to Save the Children surveys, the proportion of families reporting having a child outside the home rose from 18% to 22% from December to June. That would indicate that more than 1 million children were working nationwide. The surveys included more than 1,400 children and more than 1,400 caregivers in seven provinces. Another 22% of children said they were asked to work in the family business or on the farm.

The survey also pointed to the collapse in livelihoods Afghans have suffered over the past year. In June, 77% of families surveyed said they lost half or more of their income year-on-year, up from 61% in December.

It recently started to rain lightly at one of the ovens and at first the children were cheerful, thinking it would be a refreshing drizzle in the heat. Then the wind picked up. A cloud of dust hit them, covering their faces. The air turned yellow with dust. Some of the children could not open their eyes, but they continued to work. The rain opened to a downpour.

The children were soaked. One boy was draining water and mud, but like the others said he could not find shelter without finishing his work. Streams of pouring rain dug ditches in the dirt around them.

“We’re used to it,” he said. Then he said to another boy, “Hurry up, let’s finish it.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

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