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Earthquake in Afghanistan: “What do we do when another disaster strikes?” Afghans face crises on all fronts

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CNN

Aid groups rushed on Thursday to reach the victims of a powerful earthquake that rocked eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 people in an area devastated by poor infrastructure, as the country faces severe economic crises and hunger.

The slow response, exacerbated by international sanctions and decades of mismanagement, concerns people working in the humanitarian space, like Obaidullah Baheer, senior lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan. “This is a very disparate band-aid solution for a problem that we need to start thinking about (the) medium to long term…what do we do when (another disaster) strikes?” he told CNN by phone.

The 5.9 magnitude quake struck in the early hours of Wednesday near the town of Khost near the Pakistani border and the death toll is expected to rise as many houses in the area were frailly made of wood, mud and into other materials vulnerable to damage. .

Aid agencies are converging on the area, but it may take days for aid to reach affected areas, which are among the most remote in the country.

UNICEF Afghanistan communications chief Sam Mort told CNN that the essential aid he has sent to help affected families is not expected to reach the villages until Saturday. Teams deployed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have not yet arrived, according to Anita Dullard, ICRC spokeswoman for Asia-Pacific.

“The challenges we face, first and foremost, are geographic and logistical challenges because the region is so remote, rural and mountainous. Already yesterday we had a lot of rain here and the combination of the rain and the earthquake caused landslides in some areas making the roads difficult to cross,” UNICEF Mort told CNN from Kabul. .

The earthquake coincided with heavy monsoon rains and wind between June 20 and 22, which hampered search efforts and helicopter travel.

As medics and emergency personnel across the country attempt to gain access to the site, aid is expected to be limited as a number of organizations pulled out of the aid-dependent country when the Taliban took over. power in August of last year.

Men stand around the bodies of people killed in an earthquake in Gayan village, Paktika province, Afghanistan, June 23.

Those that remain are stretched. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had mobilized “all resources” across the country, with teams on the ground providing medicine and emergency aid. But, as one WHO official put it, “resources are overstretched here, not just for this region.”

The international community’s reluctance to deal with the Taliban and the “very messy bureaucracy where it becomes difficult to get information from one source” has led to a lack of communication in the rescue efforts, Baheer – who is also the founder of the aid group Save Afghans from Hunger – says.

“At the heart of it all is how politics has resulted in this communication gap, not only between countries and the Taliban, but also international aid organizations and the Taliban,” he said. he adds.

Baheer gives an example of how he acted as an information channel with the World Food Program and other aid organizations, informing them that the Afghan Ministry of Defense was offering to airlift aid from humanitarian organizations to hard-hit areas.

Meanwhile, some people slept overnight in makeshift outdoor shelters as rescuers searched with flashlights for survivors. According to the United Nations, 2,000 houses were destroyed. Images from the hard-hit province of Paktika, where most of the deaths have been reported, show houses reduced to dust and rubble.

Officials say aid is reaching the affected areas.

The government has so far distributed food, tents, clothes and other supplies to quake-hit provinces, according to the official Afghan Ministry of Defense Twitter account. Medical and rescue teams deployed by the Afghan government are already present in the quake-affected areas and are trying to transport the injured to medical facilities and health centers by land and air, he added.

Although the economic crisis in Afghanistan has been looming for years, the result of conflict and drought, it plunged to new depths after the Taliban takeover, which prompted the United States and its allies to freeze about 7 billions of dollars of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and to cut off international trade financing.

The United States no longer has a presence in Afghanistan following the hasty withdrawal of its troops and the collapse of the previous US-backed Afghan government. Like almost all other nations, it has no official relations with the Taliban government.

This decision paralyzed the Afghan economy and plunged many of its 20 million inhabitants into a serious hunger crisis. Millions of Afghans are out of work, government workers have not been paid and the price of food has skyrocketed.

A child stands next to an earthquake-damaged house in Bernal district, Paktika province on June 23.

Baheer says the sanctions “are hurting us so much” that Afghans are finding it difficult to send money to earthquake-affected families.

“The fact that we barely have a banking system, the fact that we haven’t had any new currency printed or imported into the country in the last nine to ten months, our assets are frozen…these sanctions don’t work not,” he said. .

He added: “The only sanctions that make moral sense are targeted sanctions on specific individuals rather than sanctioning an entire country and an entire people.”

While “sanctions have affected much of the country, there is an exemption for humanitarian aid, so we are providing it to support those who need it most,” UNICEF’s Mort told CNN. .

The Taliban “does not prevent us from distributing anything like this, on the contrary, they allow us”, she added.

According to experts and officials, the most urgent immediate needs include medical treatment and transport for the injured, shelter and supplies for the displaced, food and water, and clothing.

An Afghan searches for his belongings among the ruins of a house damaged by an earthquake.

The UN has distributed medical supplies and sent mobile health teams to Afghanistan – but warned it lacked search and rescue capabilities.

Baheer told CNN Wednesday that the Taliban could only send six rescue helicopters “because when the United States left, they disabled most of the planes, whether they belong to the Afghan forces or to them”.

Regional government spokesman Mohammad Ali Saif said Pakistan has offered to help by opening border crossings in its northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and allowing injured Afghans to enter the country without visas for treatment.

“400 injured Afghans arrived in Pakistan this morning for treatment and a flow of people continues, these numbers are expected to increase by the end of the day,” Saif told CNN.

Pakistan has maintained a strict limit on Afghans entering the country through the land border crossing since the Taliban took over.