Amin is playing with the broken plastic bristles of my hairbrush. I see him from my second floor window as I draw back the curtains in the morning light. He's standing atop a pile of trash on the dirt street in front of my house. After a few minutes, he tosses the brush aside and fumbles with burnt toast I discarded a few days ago; he peers into an empty jar of crusty tomato sauce that I poured over noodles; he pulls out a wad of wet paper towels that I used to wipe up spilled coffee on the kitchen floor. A work colleague has decided his new plush Puff jacket is too small and it's rolled up inside a trash bag that Amin starts to tear open like a present. When winter comes and snow has mixed with grime and exhaust and turned into gray sludge, Amin will be one of the few street kids in Kabul who has a warm jacket to wear.
He's wearing the same dust-laden pants and shirt that he wore last week. His left shoe is severed at the toe and the torn piece is flapping up and down like a talking mouth.
Several sheep mill about a few yards away. Donkeys, rickshaws, people, and cars all jostle together on the unpaved rutted streets like a rolling river. There are no sidewalks, stop signs, or traffic lights.
My house is the third stop on his route. He's just started the day.
Amin is eight. He doesn't go to school.
Months ago, I first meet him as I'm leaving the house to go to my teaching job at a local Kabul school. He tells me with the voice of a child yet the eyes of an old man: "I have to work to help support my family. There are five of us and because I'm the oldest son this is my responsibility. We don't have enough money and I have to help feed everyone."
And so he spends his days walking from one pile of trash to another, inspecting, digging, picking, snagging what's salvageable, useful, or can be sold or eaten and stuffing it into a bloated trash bag he hauls over his bony shoulder. His younger brother, Fahim, who is six and not in school either, occasionally works with him while he rummages through trash. Other days, Fahim stands on a nearby street corner selling packs of cinnamon chewing gum for twenty cents (thirteen Afghani). On a good day, Fahim can make about two dollars selling gum. "It depends," Amin says. "Some days he can make more on the corner but other days not very much so he helps me. I am showing him what to look for and which houses to go to... he's getting better at it." Amin shifts his bag to his other shoulder to ease the weight on his tiny frame.
He continues, "My younger sister, Mariam, is four. She cooks and cleans and sweeps the house with my mother. Sometimes she comes with me to find aluminum cans that we can sell. Mostly she stays inside the house with my mother like the other girls. Girls don't go out much. When she's older she can help more."
Girls typically work as house servants, cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, washing clothes, fetching tea, cooking. Some sell trinkets on the street and beg; others are sold or forced into marriage.
Approximately one in four children in Afghanistan work to support their family. My neighborhood is part of Amin's 'territory.' In Kabul alone, over seventy thousand kids work on the streets. Some as young as five. They are standing in muddy gaping potholes with dirt-smudged faces extending their cupped hands begging for money. They are standing at fume-filled gas stations amid grainy haze hawking plastic bags. They are looping between cars in honking traffic spraying incense to ward off bad spirits in exchange for tips.
There's a quiet rule among the children that each won't encroach on the other's jurisdiction. But fights have been known to break out as demand for goods and space is fierce.
Kabul was never meant to hold four million people; it was initially built for about five hundred thousand. There simply isn't enough space. Everything and everyone is jammed tight like a key in a lock: a goat is crammed in the back of a jalopy Datsun station wagon; street crowds are squashed together like crushed fruit, swirling with dust and sweat and soiled air; houses are wedged in, stacked like plates up the hills with only two rooms housing ten or more people; little privacy remains anywhere, as life spills over onto the street.
Amin doesn't kick his toes up in laughter on a swing set. He doesn't holler "wheee!" as he swishes down a slide. He doesn't grab hold, white-knuckled, onto the monkey bars while swaying side to side. No playgrounds here. Barely any grass. Hardly any trees, as they've been chopped down by fighters and for firewood during winter to keep warm, twirls of black smoke scratching the winter white sky as the trees burn. Now dead hollow stumps sit in the barren ground.
The abandoned blown-out palace crumbling like a sandcastle, the rotting ripped tires chucked astray, shells of old battered vehicles, dust that sticks to your eyelashes, rattling cars, clogged traffic, seething fumes, debris—this is Amin's playground.
One day as I'm coming home from teaching class, Amin introduces me to Jawad, who is eleven; he works not far from Amin. On the end of one finger sits a rocky stub where the tip used to be. He lost it picking through old machinery. A scar runs through his left eyebrow. Shabby hair flops over his tiny ears. Amin and Jawad often pair up and scout the streets together. Hoisting their stuffed trash bags over their shoulders, they dodge cars in narrow pitted alleys, scuttle with each other, compete for goods, and rest on their haunches against a concrete blast wall surrounding a building. But make no mistake, Amin asserts—"we aren't friends," as trust is hard to come by where survival reigns. "You can't trust anyone. Sometimes Jawad tries to take what's mine. When I find something good I don't show it to him because he tries to take it."
Jawad started working on the street five years ago when he was six, after his father died in a car bomb explosion coming home from his job as a laborer. He's been helping to support his mother and younger brother and sister since. His mother's salary of two dollars a day as a cleaner isn't enough to feed her family. She can't read or write; neither can Jawad nor his two younger siblings. Over seventy percent of the country lives off less than two dollars a day. The average salary in Afghanistan is about ninety dollars a year.
Jawad's protective of his turf—it's his livelihood after all—and he easily brawls with others. He's been known to knock Amin to ground with one fell-swoop motion. And Amin gets back on his feet, shakes himself off as if he's a boxer, and the two of them quarrel.
Jawad boasts one afternoon when he sees me walking to the store: "I can find better things than Amin. I can find good things that people throw away and sell them for good money." I ask how much he earns from what he sells. He replies: "Sometimes I can make five or six dollars a day."
Waheed works near Amin and Jawad. He sits cross-legged on the dirt in front of a bakery, waiting for customers. Assorted black and brown shoe polish and brushes surround him. He's nine. "I make twenty cents for a shoe polish" he tells me one morning as I'm entering the bakery for bread. "Some days I don't have many people and it's hard. When I go home my family isn't happy with me and I feel shame. I don't like to disappoint them."
When Waheed talks, I hear it. In fact, I hear it everywhere—on the street, in the outdoor bazaars, in the stores: the Kabul cough as it's known—which burrows in the lungs. The air like a hair dryer, the knotty dust, the thick stench of decaying trash and sewage, soot and smog, all inhaled through the nose and mouth and the tiny particles stay stuck like pins in the cushions of the lungs—in the tissue.
As dusk falls, Amin, Jawad, and Waheed head home in the beaming car headlights. Tomorrow they'll be back out on the street; they work every day. This is their job after all. Shadows dance over the stony mountains wrapping around the city like arms embracing. Stretched cotton ball clouds hang low in the opal sky as pale blue cloaks the city. People hurry home like bees to their hive; no one wants to be out at night—too unsafe, black descends quickly like a theatre curtain. Down the block, a clan of rabid hungry dogs with shiny eyes that are glowing in the dark like reflecting mirrors, is hissing and growling and howling, chasing the wheels of a Toyota 4Runner as it speeds through the darkness.
Images above and below are provided courtesy of Robin Fasano. Photographer credit: Mohammad Asif Rasooly.
The young boy pictured works in traffic as an espandi, as they are called. His job is to ward off bad spirits with herb/incense smoke. He waves the smoke-filled, tin can through car windows at drivers. The boy's name is Rahmatullah, age ten: