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‘We have nothing’: Afghan earthquake survivors despair of recovery

GEYAN, Afghanistan — As dawn broke over his village on Friday morning, Abdul Qadir dug through the rubble of his desperate family home to find a small sack of flour buried somewhere under the piles of wood and dust.

Like many in this desolate part of eastern Afghanistan, the small bag was the only food her family had before a devastating earthquake decimated half the village last week. For nearly a year since the Taliban took over and an economic crisis engulfed the country, villagers could no longer afford the firewood he collected and sold for a few dollars a day. The price of food in the local bazaar has doubled. He racked up 500,000 Afghans – over $5,000 – in debt with traders until they refused to lend him more.

Then on Wednesday, the mountains around him erupted in a violent roar that crumbled the walls of his house and killed six members of his family. Looking at the remains of his home, he was lost.

“This house was the only comfort we still had,” said Mr Qadir, 27. “We have no way to get a loan, no way to get money, no way to rebuild. Nothing.”

Last week’s earthquake wreaked havoc in this remote mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing around 1,000 people and destroying the homes of thousands more. It was a devastating blow for a place that has struggled unrelentingly for decades and desperately hoped for respite after the war ended and the Taliban took control of the country.

Residents of Geyan District have benefited little from the American era in Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest places in the country, and people survive day to day on the little money they earn collecting firewood and harvesting pine nuts each fall. Then, as now, the government was distant and families had to rely on each other when times were tough.

The advent of the Taliban regime has not changed that here. Although government officials are scrambling to bring relief stores to the region after the quake, it will have little lasting effect on worsening the desperation of daily life or on the suffering caused by the widespread death.

During the 20-year war between the Taliban insurgency and the previous Western-backed government, residents were caught up in grueling fighting that tore villages apart in this part of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s shelling – targeting Pakistani militants who have sought refuge along Afghanistan’s eastern border – has rained down from the skies, killing civilians and destroying homes. Nature itself has wrought its own violence with frequent floods, hailstorms and deadly earthquakes woven into the fabric of life here.

After the Taliban took power, many residents hoped that the end of the war would bring some relief. Instead, shelling from Pakistan continued as militants emboldened by the Taliban takeover poured into the area. A severe economic crisis, triggered by international sanctions and millions in foreign aid disappearing virtually overnight, has decimated people’s incomes and sent food prices soaring. Today, around half of the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.

For many in these remote villages, the destruction seemed to offer a heartbreaking reminder that the violence and hardship were far from over despite the end of the two-decade war.

“We were very happy the war was over, we thought our lives would be better – but things are more dangerous now than during the war because of the economy,” said Sher Mohammad, 60. “We don’t think about bombs now, but we are dying day by day because we don’t have enough to eat.

As he spoke, another small tremor shook the dull beige earth beneath him.

Wednesday morning’s earthquake completely destroyed Mr. Mohammad’s house in Stara Geyan village in Geyan district, one of the hardest hit by the quake. Without food or shelter, he and his family had come to a nearby village, Azor Kalai, to stay with his relatives. In many ways, the parents’ house was his last lifeline.

For years he and three brothers had lived together, sharing the money they earned collecting firewood on the backs of their donkeys and working as laborers on other villagers’ farmlands. It was a meager life, but enough to buy flour, rice, cooking oil and other essentials the family needed. They even saved enough to expand their common house and send Mr. Mohammad’s two sons to school in the provincial capital.

But after the economy collapsed following the Taliban takeover last August, suddenly each brother could barely earn enough to feed his own children – let alone share with each other. Unable to provide more than stale bread and tea for his family, Mr Mohammad summoned his 22 and 20-year-olds home from school to help them make ends meet by selling whatever they could in a nearby bazaar.

“Their future is gone,” he said. “If they studied, they could find a good job. But now, with the economy, they have left everything — I doubt they will ever be able to continue their studies.

On Friday morning, Mr Mohammad joined hundreds of people gathered around a makeshift aid distribution site in the village of Azor Kalai, where international aid organizations and Taliban officials had set up tents to organize and distribute food aid.

As the men waited to register their family names to receive aid, military helicopters carrying Taliban officials buzzed overhead as trucks loaded with supplies from the capital, Kabul, rolled into the town. It took many vehicles more than 24 hours to travel the 150 miles on the unpaved roads that wind through the rugged terrain dotted with shrubbery, wet riverbeds, beige mud-brick houses protruding from the hillside and a patchwork of farmland that covers the intermediate valleys.

Two days after the earthquake, most residents interviewed by The New York Times said they had received no government assistance. Instead, just as they had during the crises under the previous Western-backed government immediately after the earthquake, they relied primarily on each other.

Villagers from nearby neighborhoods whose houses remained intact led the effort to rescue those trapped under the rubble – digging little more than their bare hands – and bought shrouds, 20 meters of white linen, for the hundreds of people killed. They drove seriously injured victims to hospitals hours away in their ramshackle little Toyota Corollas. Relatives from across the province brought bread, rice and plastic sheeting to make makeshift shelters. Stunned residents scoured the rubble of their homes, desperate to salvage what they could: a sack of rice here, a kettle there.

Up a meandering riverbed from the aid distribution site, Sharif, 25, began digging through the rubble of his family home around 4.30am on Friday morning, looking for all the cooking utensils and any food he could find. Two hours later, as he pulled their freezer from the remains of one room, the wall of another collapsed, attracting dozens of his neighbors who feared he was trapped under the rubble.

Still, he considers himself lucky. His whole family survived Wednesday’s quake after waking up when the first tremors hit and telling everyone to run in the yard – a lesson his parents had taught him growing up in the mountains where nature itself made war on its inhabitants.

“Several times they gathered us together and told us that if there is heavy rain or hail, don’t leave our rooms, stay safe inside, but if the ground starts to shake, get out because walls of dust and wood can crumble,” he said.

But as he moved through the rubble, the gratitude he felt for his family’s safety gave way to despair as to what they would do next.

For two years they barely earned enough to eat after travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic prevented her father from traveling to Saudi Arabia for work – a source of income that has sustained her family for decades. Even after those restrictions were relaxed, the Taliban takeover drove the price of obtaining a visa soaring beyond what his father could afford, as hundreds of thousands of Afghans seek to leave the country to find a job.

He and his brothers tried to make up for the shortfall by selling firewood, but as the economy deteriorated they could not find anyone to buy it. Shopkeepers have stopped accepting food on credit. He stopped spending so much time at home; the screams of his children begging for food he didn’t have broke his heart, he said.

After the earthquake, he built a small tent for his family from tarpaulins brought to them by his relatives in a nearby neighborhood. Nearby, their two cows and three goats were busy while his wife and children sorted through the few pots and pans they had salvaged from the rubble.

“After this earthquake, I totally lost control” Sharif’s wife, Ali Marjana, 22, said, sitting on the floor in their makeshift home.

“I can’t explain it, we have nothing to eat, no money, no way to find money,” she added. “Look at us, we live like animals now.”


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