An Afghan physician says he fears being kidnapped due to the misconception that doctors earn a lot of money.
"My income as a doctor - as with many other doctors - has more than halved"
When the Taliban toppled the former Afghan government on August 15, 2021, life changed significantly for millions of Afghans. Many feared for their lives, pouring into the capital’s airport in a desperate attempt to flee.
Dr Shabeer - not his real name - worked as a General Practitioner for a prominent private hospital in Kabul. Having undertaken his training in one of the country’s US-run hospitals, he feared this would make him a target, and attempted to escape the country.
However, the chaotic scenes outside the airport, where thousands were pushing to enter the compound, convinced Dr Shabeer to turn back.
“I gave it a try but found it hard to get in, without risking injury or worse,” he tells Afghan Witness (AW).
Months later, the young Afghan physician regrets his decision.
As the Taliban swept through the capital’s streets, most citizens stayed home in the days following, but as a health worker, Dr Shabeer was soon called into the hospital.
However, it was not ordinary patients who awaited his treatment, he tells AW, but Taliban fighters and, in some cases, their family members.
“They would come to the hospital with their guns, and while some were polite, most would look at us as if we're sinners deserving their wrath.”
In one case, Dr Shabeer tells AW how he was threatened by a Taliban fighter after he requested a doctor’s fee for providing treatment.
“In the previous government, with all its flaws, we as doctors could at least expect some respect from the security forces,” he says. “It is a different story now, and an angry Talib could easily beat or even shoot you without much accountability.”
Earlier this month, Dr Shabeer was on his way to work when he witnessed what he describes as a militant gunning down two civilians in Karte Parwan, just metres away from where he was standing.
“It was terrifying - I was shaking,” he says. “I still fear for my life.”
There have been mounting reports of reprisal arrests and killings by suspected Taliban militants, not only against former security and government personnel but also those affiliated with foreign organisations and western governments.
“Every day, we hear that dead bodies have been discovered in different parts of the city, and most of these murders go unreported because of the Taliban censorship of media,” Dr Shabeer says.
Decades of conflict, compounded by a severe drought and more recently the pandemic and Taliban takeover, means the number of Afghans suffering from acute poverty and as a result, poor health, has increased exponentially. The UN estimates that up to 97% of people could be living below the poverty line by mid-year.
The worsening economic situation has badly impacted the fledgling health sector in Afghanistan. A recent report by the International Rescue Committee predicts that over 90% of Afghanistan’s health clinics could shut down without adequate funding.
“My income as a doctor - as with many other doctors - has more than halved,” says Dr Shabeer. “I used to make up to 3000 USD or more, but now even 300-500 USD sounds an unrealistic goal.”
With Afghanistan’s dwindling economy, people can no longer afford to spend, even for their health, and with most major funds from international donors frozen, many Afghan hospitals are either downsizing or shutting down entirely.
“In many cases, I cannot ask the patients for a fee, let alone order lab tests, because they don’t have money,” he says.
Last month, Dr Shabeer moved to another hospital in west Kabul to seek a higher salary, but even there, “eight doctors have left since I came, more than half of the skilled workforce in the hospital,” he adds. “They left not just the hospital, but the country because they are fearful and see no future for themselves in this country.”
With many doctors seeking asylum abroad, according to Dr Shabeer, “young and inexperienced doctors” are replacing skilled and experienced physicians who have left.
Another concern for Afghan doctors is the kidnapping of physicians for ransom.
At least two senior Afghan surgeons were kidnapped by armed men in January and February and were later released in Taliban operations. Others have not been so lucky: in November, a prominent doctor was kidnapped and killed in northern Afghanistan, despite his family paying the ransom.
“People think doctors make a lot of money, and this misconception makes us a potential target for kidnappers - they do not know we are economically struggling as much as others,” says Dr Shabeer. “I may have to change my address, maybe from this country.”
“If a rogue or inexperienced Taliban fighter does not kill me, a thief or kidnapper may do,” he adds. “I would like to continue serving people, but at what cost? My life, or that of my children?”
Interview with Afghan Witness