Afghan survivor: If another quake doesn’t kill us, poverty might

When a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan last week, Naqib lost his home and nearly his whole family. His parents and four siblings now lie buried on a hilltop overlooking the remote district of Gayan in hard-hit Paktika province. The 11-year-old now only has one sister, Nesab, who is four.

The little girl is glued to his side, quietly listening as her brother recalls the June 22 disaster.

“I was buried under the rubble with Nesab. We were screaming. My uncle came and helped us out of the destroyed house. It was dark, but I saw that nobody else in my family was screaming. They were all dead.”

In the morning, Naqib watched as relatives washed the bodies of the dead before burying them. It happened in a blur, and his eyes fill with tears at the memory. His sister is confused, he admitted, one moment asking when her parents will wake up, the next declaring them dead.

A total of 35 people have died in the children’s extended family; 45 were injured, some of them severely.

Naqib’s story is all too common. More than 1,000 people have been killed and 2,000 injured in what has been recorded as Afghanistan’s worst earthquake in 20 years. According to the country’s Ministry of Public Health, 35 entire villages have been destroyed or damaged. In Gayan alone, at least 250 people have died.

Families affected by the disaster now say they are struggling to see a future in the already impoverished area that has long been cut off from the rest of the country, with no electricity and only poor phone signal available.

Since the earthquake, aid agencies, Taliban officials and Afghans from all over the country have flooded in to help. Dozens of helicopter flights have brought in aid and evacuated the injured, while truckloads full of food, blankets and tents navigated the difficult terrain all the way from the capital, Kabul, a roughly nine-hour drive.

“This area saw a lot of fighting during the war, so only a few people came here,” said Naqib’s uncle and now closest relative, Rahmatullah Rahmani. He was referring to fighting between the US invasion of 2001 and its withdrawal in 2021, during which time government forces, supported by the US and other Western forces, fought the Taliban.

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban took control of the country.

“The Taliban destroyed a lot, and so did the Americans. It was dangerous and that’s why we don’t have good roads, schools or clinics here,” added the 42-year-old, who also lost his wife and two daughters last week.

“We used to manage before, but I don’t think we can after the earthquake. In the last few days, people arrived to bring food and tents, but how much longer are they going to stay? Soon we will be left alone and we don’t know how we are going to rebuild our houses.”

Qalandar Ebad, the Taliban’s minister of public health, admitted to the challenge. “The condition is critical. People have lost their homes, but they are also affected psychologically. Many children have seen their family members die, which is traumatising,” he said.

He added the Taliban would be supporting rebuilding efforts and psychological care for victims, but also hoped the Afghan people would help.

“I don’t think any other country has more humanitarians than Afghanistan,” he claimed, sitting cross-legged in a tent in Gayan, where he met other senior officials, aid agency representatives and Afghan volunteers.

Since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has slipped even deeper into a pre-existing humanitarian crisis that has seen a down-spiralling economy, skyrocketing poverty levels and widespread unemployment.

In Gayan, a rocky, mountainous terrain unsuitable for farming, men have traditionally sought work opportunities in other Afghan cities, sending cash home whenever possible. They now say they will be staying home, working to rebuild their own lives.

Immediately after the earthquake, the United Nations estimated that $15m would be required to respond to people’s immediate needs. The world body has now appealed for $110m to cover the quake response as billions of dollars in Afghan funds remain frozen in US accounts and international sanctions hamper efforts to help those worst affected.