An Afghan girl wears a donated mattress after an earthquake in the village of Gayan, in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on Friday. A strong earthquake struck an uneven, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday morning, leveling stone houses and mud houses in the deadliest earthquake in the country in two decades, the state news agency reported. (Ebrahim Nooroozi, Associated Press)
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GAYAN, Afghanistan – When the ground rose from last week’s earthquake in Afghanistan, Nahim Gul’s stone and mud house collapsed on it.
He ran his claws through the ruins in the darkness before dawn, choking on dust as he searched for his father and two sisters. He does not know how many hours of digging passed before he saw their bodies under the rubble. They were dead.
Now, days after a 6-magnitude earthquake devastated the remote southeastern region of Afghanistan and killed at least 1,150 people, according to government estimates, Gul sees destruction everywhere and aid is lacking. His niece and nephew were also killed in the quake, crushed by the walls of their house.
The United Nations estimated the death toll at 770, but warned it could rise further. Both tolls would make the earthquake in Afghanistan the deadliest in two decades.
“I don’t know what will happen to us or how we should restart our lives,” Gul told the Associated Press on Sunday, with bruised hands and an injured shoulder. “We have no money to rebuild.”
It is a fear that divides thousands in the impoverished villages where the quake’s rage has fallen the most – in the provinces of Paktika and Khost, along the jagged mountains that stretch on the country’s border with Pakistan.
Those who barely scraped, lost everything. Many have not yet visited humanitarian groups and authorities, who are struggling to reach the affected area on broken roads – some have become impassable due to landslides and damage.
Aware of their limitations, the moneyless Taliban have called for foreign aid and on Saturday appealed to Washington to unfreeze billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves. The United Nations and a number of international humanitarian groups and countries have mobilized to send aid.
China pledged nearly $ 7.5 million in emergency humanitarian aid on Saturday, joining countries including Iran, Pakistan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in sending planes with tents, towels, beds and other much-needed supplies to the quake-hit area.
UN Deputy Special Representative Ramiz Alakbarov visited the hard-hit province of Paktika on Saturday to assess the damage and distribute food, medicine and tents. UN helicopters and trucks loaded with bread, flour, rice and blankets arrived in the affected areas.
“Yesterday’s visit reaffirmed to me both the extreme suffering of the people of Afghanistan and their immense determination faced with great adversity,” Alakbarov said, appealing for the repair of damaged water pipes, roads and communication lines in the area.
Without support, he added, Afghans will “continue to suffer unnecessary and unimaginable hardship.”
But aid delivery efforts remain uneven and limited due to limited funding and access. The Taliban, who took power last August from a government led by a U.S.-led military coalition last August, appear to be overwhelmed by the logistical complexity of issues such as removing debris in what is being shaped as a major test of their ability to govern.
The villagers dug up their dead loved ones with their bare hands, buried them in mass graves and slept in the woods despite the rain. Nearly 800 families live outdoors, according to the UN humanitarian co-ordination organization OCHA.
Gul got a tent and blankets from a local charity in the Gayan district, but he and his surviving relatives had to fend for themselves. Horrified because the country is still roaring from subsequent earthquakes like the one on Friday that took five more lives, he said his children in Gayan are refusing to go indoors.
The quake was the last disaster to shake Afghanistan, which has been receding from a terrible economic crisis since the Taliban took control of the country as the United States and its NATO allies withdrew their forces. Foreign aid – which has been a mainstay of the Afghan economy for decades – has stopped virtually overnight.
World governments have piled up sanctions, halted bank transfers and paralyzed trade, refusing to recognize the Taliban government. The Biden administration cut off access to the Taliban with $ 7 billion in foreign exchange reserves held in the United States.
As he toured the disaster site, Acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi called on the White House to release funds “at a time when Afghanistan is in the throes of earthquakes and floods” and to lift banking restrictions to make it easier for charities to provide assistance.
Western donors have denied long-term aid because they want the Taliban to allow more inclusive rule and respect for human rights. Former rebels have resisted pressure, imposing restrictions on the freedoms of women and girls who remember their first time in power in the late 1990s.
Now about half of the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity due to poverty. Most civil servants, including doctors, nurses and teachers, have not been paid for months.
UN agencies and other remaining organizations have struggled to prevent Afghanistan on the brink of starvation with a humanitarian program that has fed millions and kept the health system afloat. But as international donors lag behind, UN agencies face a $ 3 billion shortfall this year.
On Sunday, the World Health Organization said it was stepping up surveillance of infections in the quake-hit areas of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the two remaining endemic countries in the world.
Shaken by the war and impoverished long before the Taliban took power, remote areas affected by last Wednesday’s earthquake were particularly ill-equipped to cope.
Some local businessmen took action. The Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment announced on Sunday that it has raised more than $ 1.5 million for the provinces of Pakitka and Khost.
However, for those whose homes have been destroyed, help may not be enough.
“We have nothing left,” Gul said.
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