Cargo planes from Pakistan and Qatar carrying relief material for Afghan earthquake survivors have landed at the Khost airport, officials said on Saturday, as rescuers struggle to deliver aid to remote regions in the wake of Wednesday’s devastating earthquake.
Thousands have been left homeless or injured by the magnitude 5.9 earthquake in Paktika and Khost provinces, which state media said killed 1,150 people. An aftershock on Friday took five more lives.
The United Nations children’s agency representative in Afghanistan said 121 children were among those killed and that figure was expected to climb.
Authorities have now ended the search for survivors from the earthquake that also wounded nearly 2,000 people in what is being billed as the deadliest disaster in nearly two decades.
People in Paktika province have been desperate for food, shelter and drinking water, as humanitarian aid slowed down due to poor infrastructure as well as diplomatic and financial isolation of the Afghan government led by the Taliban.
Survivor Dawlat Khan in the district of Gayan in Paktika province said five members of his family were injured and his house was destroyed in the earthquake.
“We are facing many problems. We need all kind of support, and we request the international community and Afghans who can help to come forward and help us,” he said.
Mansoor Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador in the Afghan capital of Kabul, said relief goods dispatched by Pakistan on Saturday were handed over to Taliban officials.
“It was our duty to help our Afghan brethren at this difficult time,” he said.
Shabir Ahmad Osmani, director of Khost’s information and culture directorate, said the Islamic Emirate is grateful for the help coming in from both inside and outside Afghanistan, but that all efforts should focus on providing victims with what they need to return to their normal lives.
“Whether the aid is big or small, what matters the most, is that support should be coming into rebuild these people’s homes,” he told Al Jazeera outside the Khost Airport, where international assistance is starting to be flown in.
Nadima Noor, an Afghan-Canadian influencer and aid worker, spent the last few days travelling around Urgan and Gaiyan in Paktika province. She said she the destruction she witnessed was unfathomable.
“I’ve never seen this many dead bodies, this many injured people, this much destruction,” Noor told Al Jazeera. “I was talking to one mother who lost 18 members of her family, can you imagine that? People now need the most basic things, we have to help them put back their lives.”
Noor said one young man she met in Gaiyan talked about how the community banded together to help one another.
“He turned to me and said, ‘We only lost my mom and dad but this other house lost eight people. So as soon as I pulled my mother out, we jumped to the other house. We kept jumping from home to home.’”
Calls for unfreezing of Afghan assets
Overstretched aid agencies said the disaster underscored the need for the international community to rethink its financial cut-off of Afghanistan since the Taliban seized the country 10 months ago when US-led forces withdrew after 20 years of war and occupation.
That policy, halting billions in development aid and freezing vital reserves, has pushed the aid-dependent economy into collapse and plunged Afghanistan deeper into humanitarian crises and near famine. Nearly 75 percent of the Afghan economy was supported by foreign aid before the Taliban takeover.
There has been a call for the United States to release Afghan frozen assets and waive sanctions to allow financial transactions.
Washington withholds about $7bn in Afghan reserves. The Joe Biden administration decided to divide the money among victims of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and return only half of the total reserves to Kabul – a move dubbed as “theft“.
Becky Roby, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) advocacy manager in Afghanistan, earlier told Al Jazeera that banking challenges posed by the US sections were complicating the humanitarian response.
The US State Department said Washington “stands with the people of Afghanistan and will continue to lead the international community in responding to their humanitarian needs”.
Afghanistan was already facing a dire humanitarian situation due to a decades-long war.
While the Taliban has announced an aid package of 1 billion afghanis ($11m) for the victims, the Afghan officials have made appeals for contributions from other nations and international partners.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, an Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the interim Taliban administration “again urges the US to remove sanctions on the Afghan banking system so that the humanitarian aid delivery process is expedited and made easier”.
“And similarly, that the Afghan bank reserves are unfrozen,” he said, pointing to $7bn frozen foreign reserves.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry tweeted on Friday: “Saw US officials claim that the US ‘stands with the people of Afghanistan’. Then why not give the $7 billion back to the Afghans?”
Beijing will provide humanitarian aid worth $7.5m (50 million yuan) to Afghanistan. The aid will include tents, towels, beds and other materials, the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website on Saturday.
Cholera outbreak feared
Rutted roads through the mountains, already slow to drive on, were made worse by earthquake damage and rain. The International Red Cross has five hospitals in the region, but damage to the roads made it difficult for those in the worse-hit areas to reach them, said Lucien Christen, ICRC spokesman in Afghanistan.
Also on Saturday, an Afghan military chopper transported food and other necessities to people in Gayan. Dozens of men and children gathered in an open area under the hot sun to wait for food, water and tents from the Afghan Red Crescent.
The aid organisation said it would distribute relief items to about 1,000 families in the district, including food, tents and clothes.
At Urgan, the main city in Paktika province, UN World Health Organization medical supplies were unloaded at the main hospital. In earthquake-hit villages, UNICEF delivered blankets, basic supplies and tarps for the homeless to use as tents.
Aid groups said they feared cholera could break out after damage to water and hygiene systems.
In the district of Spera in Khost province on Saturday, UNICEF distributed water purification tablets along with soap and other hygiene materials.
Since the Taliban’s return to power last August, Islamabad has led the way in pressing the world to engage with the Taliban-led Afghan government, which is yet to be recognised by any country in the world.
Earlier, Pakistan’s government and a Pakistani charity had sent 13 trucks of food, tents, life-saving medicines and other essential items to Afghanistan.
A 19-member team from Pakistan, comprising physicians and paramedics, has been helping Afghanistan’s Taliban-run government in Khost, providing medical treatment for those injured in the earthquake.
Officials said on Saturday that Pakistan has opened its border in the northwest to transport critically injured Afghans to hospitals in Pakistan. But it was unclear how many Afghans have arrived in Pakistan’s northwest from the earthquake-affected areas for medical treatment.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also spoke to acting Afghan Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, assuring him of Islamabad’s continued support.
Qatar, Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and India have sent emergency aid to the country, while self-ruled Taiwan has pledged to donate $1m to the victims of the earthquake.
Ali Latifi in Khost contributed to this report