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Aid trickles into Afghanistan following a disastrous earthquake, which has been overshadowed by the conflict in Gaza

Taliban regime leaders met with NGOs to coordinate humanitarian assistance and temporarily allow women to do more work to help the affected population

A man stands in the ruins of houses destroyed by the earthquake in the district of Zinda Khan (Herat), October 9, 2023.
A man stands in the ruins of houses destroyed by the earthquake in the district of Zinda Khan (Herat), October 9, 2023.ALI KHARA (REUTERS)

Afghan emergency teams are still using shovels to dig through the rubble and search for survivors of last Saturday’s earthquakes, which struck the northwest of the country. According to the latest data from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, the disaster left at least 2,445 people dead and 2,440 injured. But over 72 hours have elapsed since the tragedy, and the intensity of the search effort is slowing down as the possibility of finding people alive dwindles. “It’s total devastation. There are villages that are completely destroyed because the houses, which are made of mud and straw, collapsed completely in the earthquake. When you pass by, you can see that they’ve buried many of the dead with stones,” Thamindri de Silva, the NGO World Vision’s country director in Afghanistan, explains in a conversation with this newspaper, following a visit to some of the affected areas.

“The rescue operation is not as sophisticated as [it was] for the earthquake in Turkey, where there was technology and many countries sent emergency teams,” explains Daniel Timme, the head of communications for UNICEF in Afghanistan, from the city of Herat, just 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) from the epicenter of the strongest tremors. “Everything [here] is much more improvised, and they have received support from [only] two countries: Iran and Turkey,” he adds.

Since the Taliban’s return to power just over two years ago, Afghanistan barely receives any international aid. As winter approaches, local and international NGOs are trying to help a population that has experienced crisis after crisis. Before the earthquake, some 15 million people — out of a population of some 40 million — depended on humanitarian assistance for survival. According to de Silva, Afghanistan only received 20% of the international aid it needed before the earthquake; she fears that the conflict in Gaza will overshadow Afghanistan’s most recent disaster and the humanitarian emergencies it has caused. “We don’t believe that the earthquake is getting enough attention, particularly because of what is happening in the rest of the world, but in this crisis, people have lost even more than they had already lost,” she says.

According to UNICEF’s initial estimates, at least 12,000 people require urgent assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake. “The immediate need is [related to] the earthquake, but the country [also] has enormous humanitarian needs, because it is in a serious economic situation; people are hungry and malnourished and, as a result, do not have the ability to recover [from the earthquake],” Timme says.

There is still “enormous” chaos and confusion. “The Taliban says they have already found most of the dead, although I estimate that the number could still increase by 500 to 1,000 people,” World Vision’s country director observes. According to official data, which is corroborated by organizations such as UNICEF and Doctors without Borders, around 90% of the victims are women and children. “[That’s] because women are not allowed to leave the house,” de Silva notes.

But NGOs in Afghanistan agree that the level of devastation is not the primary obstacle to receiving humanitarian assistance. “Aid is getting through. Blocked roads haven’t been a problem, UNICEF has ambulances and trucks there, distributing winter clothes, blankets, shelter, food, medicines, latrines, and drinking water to prevent the spread of diseases like diarrhea, [which is] extremely dangerous for children,” explains Timme. The major problem is the lack of funds. “We are asking our partners to continue supporting our programs, because children’s needs are always the same, and in this type of disaster, they require special protection,” he adds.

An ‘emergency exemption’ for women

In recent days, Taliban leaders have met with NGOs and various UN agencies to coordinate aid for the victims. “They approved an emergency exemption that will allow women to participate in the relief effort” in Herat, says de Silva, who attended one of these meetings. She notes that the Taliban have banned women from working, except in the health and education sectors. In the current situation, de Silva explains, women will not need to be accompanied by a man, at least in the affected areas, so they can “carry out assessments, provide support and bring much-needed relief to the community.”

The “population has lost everything” and needs all manner of aid. “There is only one provincial hospital for the whole area, and it is overwhelmed,” de Silva explains. According to MSF, that medical center, for which MSF provides support, has treated about 540 patients, while other injured people had to be transferred to private clinics. Last Monday, 340 people remained in the hospital in Herat, “mostly with minor or moderate injuries,” the organization says.

World Vision, one of the few international NGOs based in Herat, was one of the first to assist the victims with mobile health teams. “We have treated many patients with broken bones, but one of our biggest concerns is the survivors’ mental trauma, especially the children, who are very frightened,” says the organization’s country director. She observes that some families have lost “four, five, or six members.” Shuddering, the director adds that “in one village, 900 people have died and only three were rescued alive from the rubble.”

Meanwhile, the climate presents another challenge. “The weather has changed… In just three days the temperatures in the area have dropped, so people have nowhere to go [and] are getting cold,” says de Silva. She laments that many people are still waiting for blankets to arrive so they can take shelter. “We ourselves are trying to set up tents and get blankets to them as soon as possible,” she explains, expressing her concern that winter is coming. And she emphasizes the vulnerability of children once again, their vulnerability: “They have lost all their clothes and, until help arrives, they will have to continue to wear what they have on [now].”

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