Afghanistan earthquake: Taliban struggle to respond amid international isolation

Maulvi Sharafuddin Muslim, Deputy Minister of Disaster Management of Afghanistan, addresses a crowd in the earthquake-affected area, in Paktika, Afghanistan, on June 23, 2022.
Maulvi Sharafuddin Muslim, Deputy Minister of Disaster Management of Afghanistan, addresses a crowd of people in the earthquake-affected area, in Paktika, Afghanistan, on June 23, 2022 (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
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JEAN, Afghanistan – When three helicopters landed in this earthquake-ravaged area on Thursday, dozens began to gather in hopes that they would receive much-needed assistance. Instead, a group of ministers from Kabul got off the plane.

“I pray to God to help the wounded recover soon,” Maulvi Sharafuddin Muslim, deputy minister in charge of disaster management, told the crowd. “The Islamic Emirate is committed to providing you with comprehensive support at this difficult time.”

A few hundred meters away, families were burying their loved ones and extracting their belongings from their hand-damaged homes. Of the more than two dozen civilians interviewed by the Washington Post in the area where the officials landed, no one reported receiving any aid other than sweets and juice provided by wealthy businessmen.

The devastating earthquake that hit this remote region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people, will be a major test of the Taliban’s ability to respond to a large-scale and logistically challenging disaster. This country is already in the midst of a devastating humanitarian crisis, which was exacerbated by the group’s rise to power last summer. The majority of the world’s countries cut official diplomatic relations and cut off international aid, plunging millions of Afghans into poverty and hunger.

“I heard the helicopters and came here thinking they would help,” said a young man sitting on a hillside against the steadily growing crowd. “Instead, I think there were people giving speeches.”

Shirali Gyancher, 20, was still covered in dust from his family’s exhumation from the rubble that was his former home. All 13 of his relatives survived, but their house was completely destroyed, forcing everyone to sleep in the open.

“We tried to cover ourselves from the rain with some plastic, but my younger brothers cried all night that they were cold,” he said. “I hope the government is here to provide us with tents, or something to keep us warm, or even just flour.”

Every home in Jianghar Village, like many others in this area, was damaged or destroyed. Hundreds have no shelter, no tents to sleep in, and no money to rebuild.

As a second fleet of helicopters approached, the crowd swelled as news spread of the arrival of the acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. The strongholds of the powerful Haqqani clan have long been the hardest-hit provinces of Paktika and Khost.

Taliban fighters moved away from the field and pushed spectators back, but a group of young men overstepped the bounds and greeted the minister with a smile for selfies.

“God bless you and may God have mercy on all the wounded and dead,” Haqqani told the audience, pausing for a photo and respectfully greeting the elderly around him.

The Haqqani helicopter also delivered a handful of boxes bearing UNICEF logos, which were emptied on the side of the open field but left unopened. A group of men in blue hospital gowns stood nearby watching the scene.

Asked how the group is responding to the crisis, Maqbool Luqmanzai, a senior local health official in Paktika, said aid distribution is a “difficult issue” for the Taliban leadership. He estimated that Kabul provides about 10 percent of the relief and the rest is handled by international organizations.

“Because of the economic situation, the government cannot help people more than this,” he said.

A Taliban fighter, watching from a few steps away, pulled Lokmanzai aside and told him to stop talking to reporters. The doctor politely ended the interview.

“We have the equipment, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s medical staff or other human resources,” said Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, in an interview with the “Washington Post.” What we lack are material resources, namely tents, food, water and medicine. This stems from the freezing of our assets and the imposition of sanctions on our central bank.”

In a White House briefing Thursday, US National Security spokesman John Kirby said the country was working to free up frozen funds to help earthquake victims as the Taliban bypassed, but “because we’re still working through a legal process here, it wouldn’t be wise for me to talk much about that.” “.

Inside Afghan villages where nearly every home has been flattened or partially collapsed, families have indicated where their loved ones were shot to death: five under that roof, 13 in the house next door, and another six in that room outside the courtyard.

Survivors said they escaped by chance. They were out of town, or they slept apart from the rest of their family. Abdul Rahman, who is in his fifties, lost his two wives and eight of his children. His newborn, who slept in a bed covered with a metal frame, was one of only four survivors in his home.

“I dug where I heard the voices of the besieged calling my name,” said Abdullah Abed, Abdul Rahman’s brother. The people who died under the rubble were extremely deep. We dug for four hours, but it was too late.”

As the frustrated crowd grew in Jian on Thursday, another Taliban fighter defended the group’s recovery efforts.

“This government will be a better response to this disaster because we don’t have any corruption,” said Ezzatullah, standing next to a green pickup truck with Taliban flags. Spray-paint covered the emblems that associated the car with its previous owners: the Afghan police.

“This was God’s work and they have to accept it,” he continued, explaining that people in the surrounding villages should pray for help. “When God is angry with people he sends such events. It is a test.”

Paktika has been one of the most neglected provinces in the country for decades. It is among the poorest regions in Afghanistan and has some of the lowest rates of access to education and health care, according to humanitarian groups and local officials.

The situation has worsened after billions of dollars in aid were cut off last year.

“The cuts in foreign aid since August have had devastating effects on an already struggling health sector,” said Samira Syed-ur-Rahman, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, one of the NGOs involved in the relief effort. The aid cuts have weakened vital health services across the country, repercussions that are now “more visible when [Afghanistan is] affected by such a catastrophe.”

The Taliban leadership vowed that it would soon begin compensating the families of those killed or injured in the quake, but few civilians interviewed by the newspaper believed they would see any money at all.

“All the money will only go to people they have a relationship with,” said a man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

An old man interrupted him, shouting, “They only give money to the rich, just like the previous government!” He also asked not to be named.

We just want a little help,” said Jiancher, the young man waiting on the edge of the crowd. “If I came home today without anything of course I would be angry.” He was still waiting while the Haqqani helicopter took off. A group of local Taliban members gathered on the edge of the square and spoke to the crowd.

“Please go home,” they told the crowd of more than a hundred men gathered at the edge of the square. “Help will be handed over to you. Don’t form a crowd here, just go back to your homes and wait.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.

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