haman-e-Hozori in Kabul is a park meant for the enjoyment of the city’s residents, and it still occasionally hosts a game or two of cricket or wrestling during weekends. These days, however, its main attraction is not a chance at leisure or sport, but the second-hand market set up just outside of it.
Flooded with kitchenware, carpets, sewing machines, and household knick-knacks, the makeshift market attracts people from all over Kabul who want to buy a piece of someone else’s home for a fraction of the price. The main sources of the goods are desperate Afghan families looking to sell their possessions for some money to feed their families or to flee the country.
A mini-truck loaded with household items rolls into the street in front of the park, its driver prepared to part with his beloved possessions for a pittance.
“I came to sell my carpet, a table, and a generator,” says 45-year-old Mohammed Anwar, a resident of Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul. “I hope to get enough money from the sale of these items so that I can leave the country and go to Iran for work.”
“When I bought these items, they were very expensive,” he adds. “But I am not sure how much I will get for it today. It all depends on the market.”
A father of five children, Anwar used to sell bananas for a living and earned up to AFN 500 (US$ 5) a day. He says that used to be enough to feed himself and his family. But now there is no work and no money to do anything.
Asked what he thinks about the Taliban regime, he says, “They don’t say anything but it is only due to lack of work that I want to go somewhere else.”
Even before the Taliban’s takeover of the government in mid-August 2021, Afghanistan’s economy was already sluggish due to the global pandemic, drought, and devastation caused by armed conflict. In December 2021, the United Nations Development Programme released a report that warned that up to 97 percent of the population may slide into poverty this 2022 — a statistic now visible on the streets of Kabul.
In the 20 years that the United States and its allies had their forces in Afghanistan, the country was heavily dependent on international aid, with 75 percent of its public expenditures and 50 percent of the government budget financed by international donors.
Much of that aid is now gone or suspended because of the donors’ refusal to recognize the Taliban government. The U.S. government also froze Afghanistan’s US$7 billion worth of assets held by the Afghan central bank in the United States. It was later transferred to the U.S. Federal Reserve following U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order, a move that outraged many Afghans.
“This is all so unfair,” says an angry shopkeeper in Kabul who declines to give his name. “They came and destroyed our country, now they want to take our money too.”
Following the move, Da Afghanistan Bank – Afghanistan’s central bank – issued a statement demanding that Biden revoke his decision. Some Taliban officials also condemned the action.
“The reserves of the Central Bank of Afghanistan is the capital of the people of Afghanistan deposited in the United States based on international monetary practices and trust,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi. “The United States touching the reserves is a breach of all national and international laws and principles. However, we are hopeful they will rectify their actions.”
The White House decision has attracted criticism as well from foreign policy and financial experts. They say that it could cause irrevocable damage to the country’s central bank, paralyzing its ability to maintain its currency’s value.
“First of all, this money belongs to the people of Afghanistan,” says political analyst Tabish Forugh, who is an expert on the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. “It doesn’t matter which government rules, these funds were collected to support the currency and the vitality of the economy in the long run.”
“Its purpose was to support the value of Afghan currency and work as a reserve for people in case of emergencies,” he adds. “It is a standard economic practice to have certain money and holdings in foreign investment banks to make sure that in times of crisis, they can just use the money.”
Experts also say that the US$8 billion that the United Nations aims to raise for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan will not benefit the country unless the United States eases sanctions on Afghanistan’s banking systems, which have impeded the flow of international aid into the country.
But former Afghanistan Finance Minister Khalid Payenda argues that more than the freezing of the country’s assets, it was the sudden aid cut-off that accelerated the country’s economic decline. In an interview published on March 21, 2022 by the online magazine Responsible Statecraft, Payenda said, “There has been a liquidity crisis — U.S. dollars in particular — due to the freeze on the assets in the banking sector. This has impacted all businesses and individuals with bank accounts that have had limits placed on the amounts they are able to withdraw. However, in a country with only 15 percent of the economy [individuals and businesses] having access to a bank account, this crisis does not explain all of the economic woes. The issue has been blown out of proportion and misunderstanding among the public has been great. It is crucial to distinguish between the freeze on assets and the abrupt cut-off of US$8 billion in annual aid. The aid cut-off has had a far more devastating impact than the freeze on assets.”
“The Taliban takeover and the abrupt cut-off of aid have meant that almost all service delivery has been completely halted or severely restricted,” he also said in the interview. “Tens of thousands of Afghans employed through donor-funded projects either in the government or in NGOs that extended services to the population lost their jobs overnight. Social, infrastructure, agriculture, community development, and urban development projects were halted at different phases of implementation. The government budget and donor grants — both through the government budget and outside it — were the biggest actors in the economy that came to an abrupt halt. This has already had devastating economic impacts and will continue to hurt the economy.”
Hazratullah is among the thousands who lost their jobs when international funding stopped. Employed as a construction worker at Aga Khan Foundation, he was making a steady income of AFN 12,000 (US$120) per month. But he lost his job after the money from overseas was halted.
He had brought his prized possessions — a carpet, some utensils, and a blanket — to sell at the Chaman-e-Hozori market. He didn’t make much money, though.
“I am the only earning member in my family of seven,” says the 45-year-old. “I have sold all my items and did not even make AFN 1,000 (US$10). I just have this wheelbarrow now that I will use to cart stuff around and hope to make AFN 100 to AFN 200 a day (US$1 to US$2).”
Hazratullah calls himself “helpless” as he prepares to part himself with the one blanket that had kept him warm during Kabul’s harsh winters. “I don’t have an option,” he says. “I have a family to feed.”
Lots of goods, but no money
Yet even though Kabul’s second-hand markets are flooded with household goods, the sellers complain that they have failed to make any profit as there are fewer and fewer buyers. People are forced to sell expensive items at a huge loss because the buyers can only afford to pay next to nothing for them.
Abdur Rehman from Paghman, a mountainous district in Kabul says that he was just walking past Chaman-e-Hozori when he saw a deg (caldron) and stopped to inspect it. He says, “I bought this deg for AFN 230 AFN (US$2.30) that would otherwise cost me more than AFN 500 (US$5). It is cheaper here because I know I can bargain.”
Rehman, 55, retired from construction work years ago and has since relied on his two sons to support him and his wife. But his sons who work as teachers have not been paid salaries in the last four months.
“We have a cow at home,” says Rehman. So we sell its milk and manage to survive somehow.”
“After the Taliban came, this market was set up a week later as more and more people were fleeing the country and selling their goods,” says the high-school student. “A lot of them called us to buy their household items. We sourced our items from these people.” While Qais tends the stall, his father goes to source household items from people’s homes.
“It is difficult to sometimes earn even AFN 500 as people don’t have jobs or income,” Qais says. “There are mostly sellers who come to Chaman-e-Hozori who know that they can sell their things here. But the buyers are too few.” ●
Kanika Gupta is a journalist based in New Delhi, India, and works out of Kashmir and Afghanistan. She reports on human rights from conflict regions.