A SCOTS aid worker has told of the struggle for survival facing millions of people in Afghanistan this winter, with starving children and the director of the country’s biggest paediatric hospital forced to chop down trees to try to keep babies warm.

Sam Mort, Unicef’s chief of communications in Afghanistan, was one of the few Westerners who stayed behind following the Taliban takeover in August. She said the country is now on the “precipice” – but there is still time to avert a humanitarian disaster if the global community responds to help.

The plight of the country was highlighted last week after veteran BBC journalist John Simpson broke down live on air while describing the hunger crisis. The World Food Programme has warned 23 million people are “marching towards starvation”.

Mort (below), who is originally from Kingussie, said there were multiple factors behind the emergency, with Afghanistan already one of the most aid dependent countries in the world with extreme poverty before the Taliban took over.

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A dry winter at the beginning of the year led to drought and a meagre harvest, the impacts of which are still being experienced.

It is predicted food stocks will run out midwinter, with rising unemployment and food prices adding to the difficulties being faced by families. Mort said the global community had stopped funding after the Taliban takeover, hitting all sectors but particularly health and education workers.

Teachers have not been paid since then and health workers have only started receiving some form of payment in recent days.

Mort said she had seen the impact during a visit to the Indira Ghandi Children’s Hospital in Kabul last week, which is the biggest paediatric facility in the country. “The hospital doctor he was chopping down dead trees around the hospital to keep the hospital warm,” she said.

“He said his main concern was how to keep the pre-term babies warm and the children who are most malnourished. That really took my breath away.

“Part of the reason he is in such desperate strife is that he said the previous Ministry of Health used to pay for a lot of his costs. That was donor money and that has just stopped.

“So he said I don’t have paper for prescriptions or prescriptions pads, I don’t have disinfectant to clean the floor. I am down in my store and I have beans and rice to feed the children, the parents and my staff.

“He said because the health workers hadn’t been paid for so long that 25% of his nurses had resigned – not because they didn’t want to come to work, but because they can’t even afford the transport to get to the hospital. So that meant, for example, in one ward with 60 children there were two nurses.

“It is really, really stark and hitting hard.”

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Unicef has seen a steep rise in cases of severe acute malnutrition and warned 1.1 million children under the age of five will die by the end of the year unless they receive urgent treatment.

Mort said she had visited two clinics where doctors had told of a 50% and 30% increase in cases of severe acute malnutrition in the past month.

Parwana, aged four, was given treatment after being found to weigh only around 9.10kg – half what her weight should be.

“Her mother brought her in carrying her and sat her down on the chair. She didn’t move,” Mort said. “She was in this big coat and where her mother placed her, she sat slumped and crumpled. Her head was bowed, she didn’t have the strength or will to raise her head, she had no curiousity.

“Then the nutrition counsellor took off her coat and I was taken aback as the top of her arm looked like a broom handle, it was so thin.

“You could see the skin on her face was paper thin, she looked like a little old woman. Her cheeks were hollowed out, a lot of her hair had fallen out, it was really patchy. She was so still throughout it, it was haunting.”

MORT said Parwana was lucky as she is now receiving treatment – but there are millions more like her.

“When you say 23 million people are food insecure, you can take 60% of that and that is the number of children. This is a children’s crisis,” she said. “It’s a real make or break moment in Afghanistan. We are ringing the alarm bells.

“Giving cash to those in need is how we are scaling up in this emergency, as it is the fastest way to help people.

“We are drastically scaling up our cash assistance programme and really urging the global community to fund us directly so we can help those most in need. We are on a precipice here.

“We have to be so careful about that in terms of our own internal audits and being accountable to donors – not a single penny goes through the Taliban.

“We work with local NGOs to get money into the hands of those most in need. And the Taliban accepts that – they have asked Unicef to stay, they want us to be responding to this humanitarian catastrophe.”

Mort said the fact Unicef has stayed when others had abandoned the country in August had given some hope to Afghans.

“Now hopefully over winter we will be able to make a practical difference to lives,” she added.

“We have an opportunity to avert a humanitarian disaster – why are we not grabbing it with both hands?”