Afghanistan’s remote and poor villages hardest hit by earthquake

Gayan, Paktika – In the early morning hours of Wednesday June 22, the mud homes in this remote part of southeastern Afghanistan began to tremble and collapse under the force of a 5.9-magnitude earthquake.

Panicked residents tried to wake their sleeping relatives. But for hundreds of families, there was no time.

Within minutes the mud roofs on the homes in Gayan district, where poor families of up to 15 people lived together, came crashing down on those still inside.

In the hours that passed after those first terrifying tremors, the death toll climbed.

By the time residents in the Afghan capital Kabul awoke to the news of the earthquake in the remote eastern regions of the country, the number of dead had already reached 90. It would exceed 1,000 dead, including at least 121 children, by evening time.

Now, three days later, the death toll has exceeded 1,100, and hundreds are injured.

“Every house here has lost multiple people; everyone’s houses are destroyed. Whatever we had is now gone,” said Ali Khan, recounting how 10 family members were killed in the earthquake, including children.

Having grown up in Gayan, the 35-year-old said the economic conditions of local villagers was a factor in the scale of the destruction and the death toll.

Nestled in rocky, unpaved mountains and hillsides, the remoteness of these poor villages and their rudimentary homes of mud and wood was cited as a major cause of the fatalities among residents in Khost and Paktika – the two provinces that were most affected by the earthquake.

“Everyone is poor here, they build simple houses with what they have,” said Khan as he surveyed the cracked walls of his family’s mud home atop a dry, dusty hill in this remote region of the country.

‘You don’t know who to help first’

The Afghan Ministry of Defence began deploying helicopters to the affected districts on Wednesday morning, but by mid-afternoon those flights had to be halted due to torrential rain, hail, and heavily clouded conditions over Kabul and neighbouring provinces.

Health workers in Paktia province, home to the regional hospital for Afghanistan’s southeastern zone, told Al Jazeera that the delayed helicopter flights greatly affected the ability of aid workers and medical professionals to assist those most in need.

When the helicopter flights did resume, the demand was overwhelming.

One pilot conducting flights between Paktika and neighbouring Paktia province, said he could not believe what he saw each time his helicopter landed in one of the affected areas.

“You don’t know who to help first, it’s just a rush of people trying desperately to get on board,” he said, re-starting the engine of his helicopter for yet another flight.

Samira Sayed Rahman, communication and advocacy coordinator at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said her organisation had deployed mobile medical units to Khost and Paktika, but that the need remained great.

IRC was fortunate that they had teams in the two provinces and in Kabul who were familiar with the communities and the geographies of the affected areas, Sayed Rahman said.

“Our mobile health team in Spera (district) reported that most of the deaths, and the victims they are treating in the district, are of women.”

Haji Mirwais has been on the ground since Wednesday, leading an assessment team and working with several local NGOs to bring assistance to survivors of the earthquake.

When Mirwais initially arrived in Gayan district, he was shocked by what he saw. Nothing, he said, could have prepared him for the level of destruction he witnessed.

“We counted 1,700 homes that were in need of total rebuilding. There weren’t homes anywhere, it was just pieces of mud and wood splattered everywhere,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

“Paktika is in an awful state,” Mirwais said, adding that aid has been pouring in from international organisations, businesses, local NGOs, and private donors, but it still was not enough to address the level of need.

Local sources told Al Jazeera that at least four of 19 districts in Paktika experienced severe damage. According to the United Nations, at least 200 people died in Gayan.

A Taliban helicopter takes off after bringing aid to an area affected by an earthquake in Gayan, Afghanistan, June 23, 2022 [Ali Khara/Reuters] (Reuters)

‘I feel that pain, even here in Europe’

Afghans at home and abroad have launched their own aid campaigns to assist victims of the quake.

“Wherever it may be on the map, if people in Afghanistan are suffering, I feel that pain, even here in Europe,” said Shafi Karimi, an Afghan journalist based in France, who has started an online fundraising campaign hoping to raise 10,000 euros to help victims.

“We may be far away now, but we can’t forget our people,” said Karimi, explaining that he wanted his fundraising effort to serve as a model for Afghans abroad whether they left the country in the last year – since the Taliban retook power – or decades ago.

“I know it’s not much, but maybe I can help a family rebuild one of their rooms, or at the very least put some food on their table,” he said.

Pashtana Durrani, an education rights advocate currently studying in the United States, said she had initially “sworn off” humanitarian work, but said that the reports of devastation coming out of the most affected zones had drove her to start fundraising efforts and to partner with local grassroots groups and NGOs in Afghanistan. She hopes her aid effort will reach those most in need.

“There needs to be people who are trying their best to serve the affected people instead of categorising them based on ethnicity or which side they fought on,” Durrani said.

“The least I can do is provide some small help so they don’t have to worry about where they sleep or what to eat.”

Ongoing sanctions and restrictions on banking in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover is adding another layer of complication to the fundraising efforts of both Durrani and Karimi.

They both want to focus on raising as much money as possible, and getting it directly to people in need without having to deal with the limitations placed on banking in Afghanistan.

Durrani said she wanted to use an app to send money, but that the fees would be too high. Karimi said that even once reliable services such as Western Union and MoneyGram are proving overly complicated as a result of the global restrictions put on banking after the Taliban returned to power last August.

“It’s so difficult to get money into the country nowadays, but we will find a way to do it. We have to, for the people, this when they need us the most,” he said.

Durrani and Karimi are not alone in their fundraising efforts. Afghans everywhere have started to help, including Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s star Cricket player, who has started an online collection, promising that every penny collected will go directly to the victims of the earthquake.

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