Destruction everywhere, aid scarce after earthquake in Afghanistan

GAYAN, Afghanistan (AP) – As the ground swelled from last week’s earthquake in Afghanistan, Nahim Gul’s stone and mud house collapsed on top of him.

He clawed through the rubble in the predawn darkness, choking with dust as he searched for his father and two sisters. He doesn’t know how many hours they dug before he caught a glimpse of their bodies beneath the ruins. They were dead.

Now, days after a magnitude 6 earthquake devastated a remote area of ​​southeastern Afghanistan, killing at least 1,150 people and injuring hundreds, Gul sees destruction everywhere and aid is scarce. His niece and nephew were also killed in the earthquake, crushed by the walls of their house.

“I don’t know what will happen to us or how to start our lives over,” Gul told The Associated Press on Sunday, his hands bruised and his shoulder injured. “We have no money to rebuild.”

It’s a fear shared by thousands in the impoverished villages where the earthquake’s wrath has fallen most — in Paktika and Khost provinces, along the jagged mountains that stretch across the country’s border with Pakistan.

Those who barely came by have lost everything. Many have yet to be visited by aid groups, who are struggling to reach the affected area over beaten roads – some have been made impassable by landslides and damage.

Aware of the restrictions, the financially distressed Taliban have asked for foreign aid. The United Nations and a range of international aid agencies and countries have mobilized to send aid.

China pledged on Saturday to send nearly $7.5 million in emergency humanitarian aid, along with countries such as Iran, Pakistan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in sending a planeload of tents, towels, beds and other much-needed supplies to the area affected by the earthquake.

UN Deputy Special Representative Ramiz Alakbarov toured the stricken 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 have trickled into the affected areas.

But aid delivery remains patchy due to funding and access constraints. The Taliban, which seized power last August from a government backed for 20 years by a US-led military coalition, appears overwhelmed by the logistical complexity of issues such as debris removal in what will be a major test of its ability to to rule.

Villagers dug up their dead loved ones with bare hands, buried them in mass graves and slept in the woods despite the rain. Nearly 800 families live in the open air, according to the UN humanitarian coordination organization OCHA.

Gul was given a tent and blankets from a local charity in the Gayan district, but he and his next of kin had to fend for themselves. Terrified because the earth is still rumbling with aftershocks like one Friday that claimed five more lives, he said his children in Gayan are refusing to enter.

The earthquake was the latest calamity to shake Afghanistan, which has been reeling from a serious economic crisis since the Taliban took control of the country when the US and its NATO allies withdrew their troops. Foreign aid — a mainstay of the Afghan economy for decades — practically stopped overnight.

World governments piled sanctions, halted bank transfers and crippled trade, refused to recognize the Taliban government and demanded that they allow more inclusive rule and respect human rights. The Biden administration has banned the Taliban from accessing $7 billion in foreign exchange reserves in the United States.

The former insurgents have resisted pressure and imposed restrictions on the freedoms of women and girls remembering 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 surviving organizations have worked to keep Afghanistan from the brink of starvation with a humanitarian program that has fed millions and propped up the medical system. But with international donors lagging behind, UN agencies will face a $3 billion funding shortfall this year.

The distant areas hit by last Wednesday’s earthquake have succumbed to war and been impoverished long before the Taliban takeover, and are particularly ill-equipped to cope.

Some local entrepreneurs have taken action. The Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment said Sunday it had raised more than $1.5 million for Pakitka and Khost provinces.

Still, the help may not be enough for those whose homes have been swept away.

“We’ve got nothing left,” said Gul.

Faiez reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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