KABUL -- Thousands of people have been flocking through the dusty streets and bazaars of Kabul buying groceries, gifts, and garments in preparation for Norouz, the spring festival marking the traditional New Year.
Norouz, arguably the biggest occasion of the year, is a time when, for at least a few days, many Afghans forget their troubles
and gather at funfairs, observe special rituals, and celebrate with food and dance.
But for thousands of poor Afghan families, the ancient festival is a vivid reminder of their woes as they struggle to make ends meet in one of the poorest and most volatile countries in the world.
Along a grimy pavement flanking the Kabul River an elderly man in an orange uniform stands crouched over a large wooden broom. As he slowly sweeps the ground, dozens of children pass him by waving kites and singing celebratory songs.
But Agha Sardar, a 72-year-old cleaner, does not look up. For him, Norouz is a painful reminder of what he once had and the continuing misery in which he continues to live.
“I didn’t buy anything. I have no money and no desire left," he says. "Where can I go if I have to work all day? I used to work as a farmer; I served in the army, and I was respectable. Now, life is just passing me by.”
'We Just Can't Afford It'
Sardar lives in Sharhara, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kabul. After entering a dark alleyway, his home is a long trudge up a narrow path past lanes of mud-brick houses and canals of open sewage.
A slanting rusty door is the entrance to the dark, damp room Sardar calls home. Inside, the only furniture in the room is a dusty Afghan rug, several large cushions and pillows, and an old photograph on the wall.
Sardar lives in this one room with his widowed daughter and mentally ill son. To make ends met, he must work full-time to provide for the family. He earns a meager 5,000 Afghanis ($100) a month cleaning filth and picking up trash from the littered streets.
Sardar, a widower, maintains that with little money and hope for the future, he is unable to celebrate days like Norouz.
“When it was Eid last month I didn’t have enough money so I had to get an advance," he says. "It’s difficult to be in such a desperate position. Most of the time I borrow from shopkeepers until I receive my money so that my family can eat.”
In the back of the room, in the makeshift kitchen, stands Shaima, Sardar’s daughter.
Unable to decorate the room or prepare traditional foods, Shaima says she is occupying herself with cleaning the house -- something she feels compensates for Norouz, when people usually perform rituals that signify renewal.
"What can poor people like us do?" she asks. "We can't buy new clothes, or any food. We just can't afford it."
Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Fareba Wahidi of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan