KABUL: Conical chimneys rise from the plain to the east of Kabul, a light wind sending their thick, black smoke at right angles into a deep blue sky, like fat fingers smudging ink across paper.
The thousands of neatly-stacked sandy bricks baked in coal-fired ovens below the chimneys are in high demand in the capital and throughout Afghanistan, as the country tries to rebuild after three decades of destructive conflict.
But the people who work in these factories – down rutted tracks and largely unseen from the main road – show that it is not just bricks and mortar that are needed to get impoverished Afghanistan on its feet.
Employment for returning refugees who fled the Soviets, the mujahedeen or the Taliban, improving access to education, particularly for girls, are among the challenges facing the government as much as bringing much-needed stability.
‘We came here to earn money,’ said Chaman Gul, leaning on the handle of a shovel in a pile of wet sand at the Gahiz brick factory, which makes some 42,000 bricks every day for building sites from Kabul to Bamiyan.
‘My five sons are here and I have four daughters at home in the village.’
Chaman is 36 but looks two decades older. Four of his sons – Omar, 15, Amin, 13, Taza, 12, and 10-year-old Anam – squat nearby, looking up occasionally as they fill cast-iron brick moulds.
His fifth, Stana, 18, is busy elsewhere on the site.
The children, whose small footprints are left in the powdery dust amid tyre and hoof marks, are not playing though.
They are working and Chaman’s youngest son – four years below the minimum working age in Afghanistan – is by no means an exception.
Elsewhere in Kabul, other school-age children can be seen in grimy workshops, pushing wheelbarrows, struggling with heavy sacks or, unseen behind the walls of housing compounds, weaving carpets by hand on large metal looms.
Unicef said in 2007 that a quarter of Afghan children aged between seven and 14 worked, despite legal and constitutional protection and Afghanistan being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission estimates that 60,000 children are currently working in Kabul alone.
‘The situation of child labour remains one of the highest concerns for us in the country,’ commissioner Nader Nadery told AFP.
‘It has been a big challenge and it remains a challenge. There are some positive changes, like more schools.
‘But the fact that the government has not been able or doesn’t have enough resources to provide some social welfare means they’re still suffering. It’s a big, big problem now and for the future.’
At the brick factories, children spend their days in the choking air of dust and acrid charcoal smoke from the kilns, stacking and sorting rectangles of wet bricks laid out to dry in long rows.
Poverty, inflation and the human cost of war – death or disability among parents – mean they must work to feed their families, said Nadery.
Even when parents do have jobs, and free government schools exist, attendance is often dependent on whether a family can afford pens and paper, he added.
Chaman said: ‘We came from Pakistan when the refugee camp was demolished. We had no proper house in our village and there were no NGOs because it is a remote area. We were starving.’
In Pakistan, his children went to school but the one near their new home in the Surobi district of Kabul province, beyond the jagged mountains that surround the capital, is only half-built.
So instead the children help their father, working from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm every day, sleeping in flat-roofed, windowless huts with doors hanging off hinges as the only protection against the cold Afghan nights.
The children can make between 80 and 100 Afghanis (1.6 to two dollars) every day. The money goes to their father. Adults on the site earn up to 320 Afghani for every 1,000 bricks they make.
All but Chaman’s youngest son are barefoot. The boys have sandfly marks on the cheeks of their sunburnt faces, while Anam has streaks of red in his black hair – a sign of malnutrition.
‘I had a very nice school,’ said Anam about lessons in Pakistan.
‘Everything was there. We were provided with notebooks and books. I was in the second year. We were taught the Koran.
‘The work here is very hard and it is hard on my hands. The boxes are very heavy.’
Chaman accepts that the situation is not ideal – but say he has no choice.
‘Who wants their children to work in a place like this?’ he asked, looking around.