International 21/09/2021

Freeze on bank accounts adds to Afghans' despair

Afghans can only withdraw €200 a week from banks

3 min
Hundreds of men wait outside Kabul Bank to withdraw cash

Special envoy to KabulThe person who in theory has to keep order is a man armed with a Kalashnikov and a whip in his hand that, honestly, does not inspire much trust. He is in charge of organising the human tide that forms every day in front of Kabul Bank: hundreds of men who only want to take their money out or at least have some cash to be able to survive. In Afghanistan everything is paid for in cash. Credit cards don't work. And when the Taliban arrived in Kabul on August 15, the banks closed for three weeks. Now they have reopened but withdrawals are limited to 20,000 Afghanis a week, about 200 euros. People are desperate, and rightly so.

Those who want to withdraw money from the cashpoint form an endless single line that takes up part of the road in one of the main streets of Shahr-e Naw neighbourhood. In Kabul there aren't cashpoints on every street corner like in European cities. Here, cashpoints can be counted on the fingers of one's hands. In Kabul Bank there are two and, of course, they are inside the bank. So you have to be patient.

Hours waiting

For example, Abdul Khadi arrived at the bank at seven in the morning, an hour before it opened, and the guard wrote number 132 in pen on the palm of his hand. This means that, when he arrived, there were already 131 people in the queue in front of him. Now it is nine o'clock in the morning and he is still outside the bank. "I just want to withdraw 10,000 Afghanis [about 100 euros], this month's salary. I don't have any more money". He is a teacher and says he used to go to a cashpoint at the Ministry of Education, but now it doesn't work.

The guard at Kabul Bank tries to organise the human tide that wants to enter the building

Those who want to see a clerk have to wait even longer. The man with the Kalashnikov forces them to sit on the pavement next to each other, forming a human carpet. There are so many people that it is impossible to open. According to him, every day about 4,000 people come to the bank. "Jo has been guarding here for ten years and I've never seen anything like it," he says.

Because the problem is not just that the banks were closed for three weeks, but that people are afraid of losing their money and therefore want to take it out, or fear that their savings will disappear, according to Omar Zakhilwal, who was finance minister and economic adviser to the Afghan government for years and can analyse the situation better than anyone else. The Afghan currency is depreciating steadily. In fact, since the Taliban occupied Kabul it has experienced wild fluctuations. One dollar is now equivalent to 83 Afghanis, but it has gone as high as 96. "On top of that, the international community has frozen all of Afghanistan's foreign reserves," continues the former minister. In other words, banks are afraid of running out of cash, so they limit the amount of money that can be withdrawn each week.

The result is that every day there is chaos not only at Kabul Bank, but at all financial institutions. At Azizi Bank, the organisation is different – if you can call it organisation when you have dozens of people waiting in the sun for a whole day. There is one entrance for men and another for women.

Despair

Naiera Kohistani says she arrived at six in the morning. It is three o'clock in the afternoon and she is still in front of the bank. She also made her way to the bank yesterday, so that she could be put on the waiting list to be served. Today she hopes that the guard at the door will call out her name at some point and finally let her in. Her goal, she says, is to take out all the money she has. "If I have to, I'll come every week." She looks desperate. "I was a teacher and worked in a boys school, but now the Taliban won't let me work because they don't want a woman to teach boys." Her husband was a civil servant and has also lost his job. They have two small children. "There is no right, it was really tough to earn this money. I just want them to give me my money so I can leave this country," she says, and starts to cry. "Why, why has the world abandoned us?"

Some people in the queue at the bank dare to say that perhaps it would be better if the international community recognised the Taliban government, even if it would be suicidal. But at least the money would come in and the freeze on bank deposits would end.

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