AP PHOTOS: Backbreaking work for kids in Afghan brick kilns

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Nabila works 10 or more hours a day, doing the grueling, dirty work of loading mud into molds and moving carts full of bricks. At 12, she had worked in a brick factory half her life, and she was probably the oldest of all her colleagues.

After the Taliban took over the country and the world cut off financial aid more than a year ago, the economic collapse pushed the number of children working in Afghanistan already high.

A recent survey by Save the Children estimated that half of the country’s households put their children to work to keep food on the table as livelihoods collapse.

Nowhere is this clearer than the many brick factories on the highway north of the capital Kabul. Conditions in the furnace are tough, even for adults. But in almost all of them, four- and five-year-olds labored with their families from early morning until dark in the hot summer.

Kids are doing every step of the brick making process. They dragged jars filled with water and put wooden brick moulds filled with mud to dry in the sun. They load and push carts full of dry bricks into the kiln for firing, then push back carts full of fired bricks. From the smoldering charcoal burned in the kiln, they picked still usable fragments, inhaled the soot and charred their fingers.

Children’s work determination stems from ignorance of their family’s needs. When asked about toys or games, they smile and shrug. Only a few went to school.

Nabila, 12, has been working in a brick factory 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 a kiln outside Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan.

She went to school a little in Jalalabad a few years ago. She wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t — her family needed her job to survive, she laughed.

“We can’t remember anything but work,” she said.

Muhabat, a 9-year-old boy holding a packet of charcoal, paused for a moment with an expression of pain. “My back hurts,” he said.

When asked what he wished, he first asked, “What is a wish?” After explaining, he was silent for a moment, thinking. “I want to go to school and eat good food,” he said, before adding: “I want to work hard so we can have a house.”

The landscape around the factory is desolate and barren, with black soot spewing from the chimneys of the kilns. Families lived in dilapidated mud houses, near the fire, and everyone had a corner where they could make bricks. For most people, the meal of the day is bread dipped in tea.

Rahim has 3 children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, who work with him in the brick kiln. The children have been going to school, and Raheem, who has only one name, said he has long refused to let them work. But even before the Taliban took power, as the war continued and the economy deteriorated, he said he had no choice.

“There is no other way,” he said. “We don’t have bread to eat, how do they learn? Survival is more important.”

Workers earn the equivalent of $4 for every 1,000 bricks they produce. Workers say an adult can’t do that much in a day, but if kids help, they can make 1,500 bricks a day.

According to a survey conducted by Save the Children, from December to June, the percentage of households who said they had children working outside the home rose from 18 percent to 22 percent. This means that more than 1 million children are working across the country. The survey covered more than 1,400 children and more than 1,400 caregivers in seven provinces. Another 22 percent said they were required to work in a family business or farm.

The survey also pointed to the collapse in livelihoods that Afghans have experienced over the past year. In June, 77% of households surveyed said their income had halved or more from a year earlier, up from 61% in December.

On a recent day in one of the kilns, it started to rain lightly, and the children were happy at first, thinking that the drizzle would be refreshing on a hot day. Then the wind picked up. A puff of dust hit their faces. The air was stained yellow with dust. Some kids can’t keep their eyes open, but they keep working. The rain started to turn into a downpour.

The kids were soaking wet. One boy was splashed with water and dirt but, like the other boys, said he couldn’t hide without getting his job done. Downpours of streams carved ravines in the soil around them.

“We’re used to it,” he said. Then he said to the other boy, “Come on, let’s finish it.”

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