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

The slow response, exacerbated by international sanctions and decades of mismanagement, is affecting people who work in the humanitarian field, like Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan. “This is a very patchwork patchwork solution to a problem that we have to think about in the medium to long term… what do we do if (another disaster) happens?” he told CNN by phone.

The 5.9-magnitude quake struck near the town of Khost on the Pakistan border in the early hours of Wednesday, and the death toll is expected to rise as many of the homes in the area are built of wood, mud and other materials were vulnerable to damage.

Humanitarian organizations are focused on the area, but aid could take days to reach affected regions, which are among the most remote in the country.

The teams dispatched by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have yet to arrive, according to Anita Dullard, ICRC spokeswoman for Asia-Pacific. Shelley Thakral, spokeswoman for the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Kabul, said efforts to bring aid to the affected areas were being slowed by the condition of the roads.

“The challenges we face are primarily geographical and logistical challenges because the area is so remote and rural and mountainous. Already yesterday we had a lot of rain here and the combination of rain and earthquakes has caused landslides in some areas making roads difficult to pass through,” Sam Mort, communications chief for UNICEF Afghanistan, told CNN from Kabul.

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

The quake coincided with heavy monsoon rain and wind between June 20 and 22, which has hampered search efforts and helicopter flights.

While medics and rescue workers from across the country try to gain access to the site, aid is expected to be limited as a number of organizations withdrew from the aid-dependent country when the Taliban took power in August last year.

The remaining are stretched thin. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had mobilized “all resources” from across the country, with teams on the ground providing medicines and emergency support. But, as one WHO official put it, “Resources are stretched here, not just for this region.”

“Very somber”

The international community’s reluctance to deal with the Taliban and the group’s “very chaotic bureaucracy, which makes it difficult to get information from one source” has created a communication gap in the rescue effort, according to Baheer, who also founded the aid group Save is Afghans from hunger – said.

“At its core, it is about how politics has created this communication gap, not only between countries and the Taliban, but also between international aid organizations and the Taliban,” he added.

Baheer gives an example of how he has acted as an information broker with the WFP and other aid organizations, informing them that the Afghan Defense Ministry was offering air transport assistance from humanitarian organizations to hard-hit areas.

Meanwhile, some people spent the night in makeshift outdoor shelters while rescuers used flashlights to search for survivors. The United Nations estimates that 2,000 homes were destroyed. Pictures from the hard-hit Paktika province, where most of the deaths have been reported, show houses reduced to dust and rubble.

Hsiao-Wei Lee, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan, described the situation on the ground as “very grim” with some villages in hard-hit districts “completely decimated or 70% collapsed,” she said.

Members of a Taliban rescue team return from affected villages after an earthquake.

“There will be months and possibly years to rebuild,” she said. “The needs are so much greater than just food… It could be housing for example, to facilitate the transportation of that food, as well as customs clearance, logistics would be helpful.”

Officials say aid is reaching affected areas.

According to the Afghan Defense Ministry’s official Twitter account, the government has so far distributed food, tents, clothing and other relief supplies to provinces hit by the earthquake. Medical and relief teams deployed by the Afghan government are already present in the earthquake-affected areas and are attempting to transport the wounded by land and air to medical facilities and health centers, she added.

“Carpet sanctions an entire country and an entire people”

Though Afghanistan’s economic crisis has loomed for years due to conflict and drought, it plunged to new depths after the Taliban took power, prompting the United States and its allies to freeze about $7 billion of the country’s foreign exchange reserves and cut off international funding.

The US is no longer present in Afghanistan after the hasty withdrawal of its troops and the collapse of the former US-backed Afghan government. Like almost all other nations, it has no official relationship with the Taliban government.

Sanctions have paralyzed the Afghan economy and plunged many of the 20 million people into a severe hunger crisis. Millions of Afghans are unemployed, government employees have not been paid and food prices have skyrocketed.

Humanitarian aid is exempt from sanctions, but there are obstacles, according to draft remarks by Martin Griffiths, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), before a UN Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan.

These include large funding needs, Taliban authorities “trying to play a role in selecting beneficiaries and channeling aid to people on their own priority list,” and the “formal banking system continues to block remittances,” he writes.

This means that “Approximately 80% of organizations (that participated in OCHA’s surveillance survey) face delays in remittances, with two-thirds reporting that their international banks continue to refuse remittances, a programmatic obstacle.”

A child stands near a house damaged by an earthquake on June 23 in Bernal district of Paktika province.

Baheer says the sanctions “hurt us so much” that Afghans are struggling to send money to families affected by the earthquake.

“The fact that we barely have a banking system, the fact that we haven’t printed or brought any new currency into the country in the last nine to 10 months, our assets are frozen…these sanctions aren’t working,” he said.

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

While “sanctions have affected much of the country, there’s a humanitarian waiver, so we’re bringing it in to support those most in need,” UNICEF’s Mort told CNN.

The Taliban “do not prevent us from spreading something like this, on the contrary, they enable us,” she added.

Experts and officials say the most urgent immediate needs include medical supplies and transport for the injured, shelter and supplies for those displaced, food and water, and clothing.

An Afghan man searches for his belongings in the rubble of a house destroyed by an earthquake.

The UN has been distributing medical supplies and deploying mobile health teams to Afghanistan – but warned it has no search and rescue capabilities.

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

Pakistan has offered its help, opened border crossings in its northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and allowed injured Afghans to enter the country without visas for treatment, according to Mohammad Ali Saif, a spokesman for the regional government.

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

Pakistan has severely restricted entry of Afghans through the land border crossing since the Taliban took power.

CNN’s Richard Roth, Robert Shackleford, Yong Xiong, Jessie Yeung, Sophia Saifi, Mohammed Shafi Kakar, and Aliza Kassim contributed to this report.