Warning: This article contains distressing content.
During our first days in Herat, we encountered whole families who sold their kidneys so they could eat.
In one case, three brothers and their two sisters told us they flogged their organs for around £1,150 apiece to buy food for the rest of the family.
We sat down with a mother grieving for her toddler who died of starvation. We heard from several parents telling us how they now resort to selling their children.
Yes, sell them.
And we spoke to emotional doctors who told us they couldn’t even afford the dressings for infected wounds or the basic tools to perform life-saving operations.
It is Afghanistan post-withdrawal for foreign troops. It is the country in which a coalition of nations have spent 20 years, spending billions of dollars to “rebuild”.
This is the nation where so many lives have been sacrificed – thousands – of both foreign troops and ordinary Afghans.
It’s the part of the world that the United Nations says is fast becoming the center of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Afghanistan was poor and struggling before the chaotic withdrawal of foreign troops last August.
Now with the taliban in power and the rest of the world still does not officially recognize the legitimacy of their government, it is the Afghan people who must resort to ever more extreme measures in order to survive.
Desperation in communities
In a small village community outside Herat, we saw the despair and desolation of poverty.
We conceal the exact location of the village and protect the identities of all villagers who have spoken to us for their own safety. Our arrival with the village elder prompted streams of people to come out of their mud houses and tents.
Within minutes, old women were thrusting medical documents into our hands, begging us for help, while mothers clutching babies were begging us for food.
Rows of people of varying ages and with various chronic illnesses and disabilities were lined up for us to see – each with a parent urging us to somehow bring them some hope and relief .
This area seems completely barren to us, with no water or shrubs for miles around. In many cases, the only currency these families have are their organs – and as many have already resorted to selling them, it is now their young that are being marketed.
Read more: UN calls for record $5 billion in aid to prevent Afghanistan from ‘suffering’
We spoke to a mother and father who both sold their kidneys.
All they had left to sell now was one of their eight children – so they were thinking the unthinkable. The 25-year-old mum told us: “About six months ago my three-year-old son starved to death. I can’t see them all losing their lives…at least like that someone another will feed them.”
Her voice cracked with emotion as she told us. Her husband told us that he hadn’t decided which child to sell yet, but they were so desperate that he would sell the child for less than the price of his kidney.
“We have nothing left to sell,” he said. “We have to sell our children now and I’m ready to do that even for 20,000 Afghans (about £150 or $200). I can’t fall asleep with them every night crying that they’re hungry.”
Taliban say it’s a ‘myth’
The Taliban say this is all a Western myth, dreamed up by evil and dishonest Western media to discredit them.
They also say that all the girls in the country are in school, that the schools and universities are all open and that they are not rounding up the militants or carrying out vendettas against those who have worked with the foreign troops stationed here for two decades. .
The Taliban seem to have “alternative facts” to what many others are experiencing on the ground in Afghanistan.
The rapid withdrawal of foreign troops in August saw the Taliban take power. The international community imposed sanctions and billions of dollars in assets were frozen in foreign bank accounts, mostly American.
This means the economy has virtually collapsed with few jobs and very little hard currency available to ordinary Afghans.
The Taliban government’s lack of global recognition has meant that a country that was previously almost entirely dependent on foreign aid has seen that dry up.
Read more: Taliban crackdown on women exposed
And respect for women’s rights has been repeatedly cited by global donors as a condition for restoring that aid.
But the dilemma for the international community is to try to balance the pressure on the Taliban to respect human rights against the evident and growing suffering of the Afghan people.
What little help is leaking in is far from enough for the millions who need it.
Hospitals lack treatment
So, at Herat Regional Hospital in Herat City, we found doctors like Dr Mohammad Aqel Halimee moved and in tears at not even having enough bandages to bandage his young patients in the pediatric ward of the hospital burns.
Many have badly infected wounds from deep burns from open fires that families use to try to keep warm in mid-winter.
But with most parents unable to afford medicine or bandages, let alone expensive surgeries, their children are often sent home to die.
Dr Aqel said doctors suffered greatly from the emotional toll inflicted on them.
“I have a bad feeling,” he said. “Because (it all depends on) the lack of materials…I have the ability to heal them but the lack of materials and bandages means I can’t help them.”
Many kidney buyers across the border
In the village community on the outskirts of Herat city, I was allowed to enter a room to see a group of women who had all sold their kidneys.
In this highly conservative society, they wouldn’t even show their faces in public, let alone their bare midriffs – but they allowed me to film them as long as their faces weren’t shown.
Many of them were still teenagers or in their early twenties and already had several children. I noticed that a number of them were pregnant again.
But there is a lucrative trade in kidneys in this region with the region’s proximity to the Iranian border and many buyers coming from across the border – and this extreme poverty has pushed more Afghans onto the dinner tables. operation to try to clear debts and provide food for their families.
Since the Taliban came to power, there has apparently been a crackdown on kidney transplants, but our investigations seem to indicate that this has only driven the trade underground.
Many were nervous about telling us about it for fear of repercussions from the Taliban trying to project a certain image to the outside world.
‘We have no choice’
A teenage mother told us she had surgery about a month ago.
The angry red stain on his scar seemed to confirm it.
“We have no choice,” she said, “We do this to feed our children.”
So many of them are heading to town for operations that they are complaining about the lower price of organs – just 150,000 Afghans (£1,150 or $1,500) for women compared to earlier payments of 200,000 Afghans (£1,500 or $2,000) for men.
The village elder did his best to try to persuade the couple not to sell any of their children, a number of whom were sitting with us and listening to this discussion.
And then he turned to us.
“I urge the world not to leave us alone,” he said. “Stop this tragedy where people are selling their children or their body parts. Afghanistan needs help.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said reports of people selling their organs to pay for food were “extremely, extremely concerning”.
“Well, they are extremely, extremely concerning and that is why we have increased the level of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and that is why we are working very hard with partners in the international community to ensure peace and stability. in Afghanistan.”
Additional reporting from producers Chris Cunningham and Mark Grant and cameraman Jake Britton.