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AP PHOTOS: Backbreaking work for kids in Afghan brick kilns

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Nabila works 10 hours or more a day, doing the heavy, dirty labor of packing mud into molds and hauling wheelbarrows full of bricks. At 12 years old, she’s been working in brick factories half her life now, and she’s probably the oldest of all her co-workers.

Already high, the number of children put to work in Afghanistan is growing, fueled by the collapse of the economy after the Taliban took over the country and the world cut off financial aid just over a year ago.

A recent survey by Save the Children estimated that half of Afghanistan’s families have put children to work to keep food on the table as livelihoods crumbled.

Nowhere is it clearer than in the many brick factories on the highway north out of the capital, Kabul. Conditions in the furnaces are tough even for adults. But in almost all of them, children as young as four or five labor alongside their families from early in the morning until dark in the heat of summer.

Children do every step of the brickmaking process. They haul cannisters of water, carry the wooden brick molds full of mud to put in the sun to dry. They load and push wheelbarrows full of dried bricks to the kiln for firing, then push back wheelbarrows full of fired bricks. Everywhere they are lifting, stacking, sorting bricks. They pick through the smoldering charcoal that’s been burned in the kiln for pieces that can still be used, inhaling the soot and singeing their fingers.

The kids work with a determination and a grim sense of responsibility beyond their years, born out of knowing little else but their families’ need. When asked about toys or play, they smile and shrug. Only a few have been to school.

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

A few years ago, she got to go to school a little in Jalalabad. She’d like to go back to school but can’t — her family needs her work to survive, she said with a soft smile.

“We can’t think about anything else but work,” she said.

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

Asked what he wished for, he first asked, “What is a wish?”

Once it was explained, he was quiet a moment, thinking. “I wish to go to school and eat good food,” he said, then added: “I wish to work well so that we can have a house.”

The landscape around the factories is bleak and barren, with the kilns’ smokestacks pumping out black, sooty smoke. Families live in dilapidated mud houses next to furnaces, each with a corner where they make their bricks. For most, a day’s meal is bread soaked in tea.

Rahim has three children working with him at a brick kiln, ranging in age from 5 to 12. The kids had been in school, and Rahim, who goes by one name, said he had long resisted putting them to work. But even before the Taliban came to power, as the war went on and the economy worsened, he said he had no choice.

“There’s no other way,” he said. “How can they study when we don’t have bread to eat? Survival is more important.”

Workers get the equivalent of $4 for every 1,000 bricks they make. One adult working alone can’t do that amount in a day, but if the children help, they can make 1,500 bricks a day, workers said.

According to surveys by Save the Children, the percentage of families saying they had a child working outside the home grew from 18% to 22% from December to June. That would suggest more than 1 million children nationwide were working. Another 22% of the children said they were asked to work on the family business or farm.

The surveys covered more than 1,400 children and more than 1,400 caregivers in seven provinces. They also pointed to the swift collapse in Afghans' livelihoods. In June, 77% of the surveyed families reported they had lost half their income or more compared to a year ago, up from 61% in December.

On one recent day at one of the kilns, a light rain started, and at first the kids were cheerful, thinking it would be a refreshing drizzle in the heat. Then the wind kicked up. A blast of dust hit them, coating their faces. The air turned yellow with dust. Some of the children couldn’t open their eyes, but they kept working. The rain opened up into a downpour.

The kids were soaked. One boy had water and mud pouring off of him, but like the others he said he couldn’t take shelter without finishing his work. Streams from the driving rain carved out trenches in the dirt around them.

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

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

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