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Living in fear: Afghan quake survivors reel from aftershocks and aid cuts

‘No one wants to be inside anymore.’

This photo shows an Afghan nurse preparing serum drops for a victim of an earthquake in a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan October 8, 2023. She is standing on a street, the patient is on the ground next to a car. It is night time. Ali Khara/Reuters
An Afghan nurse prepares serum drops for an earthquake survivor in a hospital in Herat city on 8 October 2023. The province was hardest hit by the quakes, which have left 2,400 people dead and injured an estimated 4,000.

A series of earthquakes led to the deaths of at least 2,400 people in western Afghanistan over the weekend, according to Afghan officials. A further 4,000 people are estimated to be injured and 1,400 displaced across the provinces of Herat, Badghis, and Farah.

Herat province was hardest hit by the six earthquakes and aftershocks that began around 11am local time on Saturday and measured up to 6.3 in magnitude. Zinda Jan, a district about 40 kilometres from the city of Herat, suffered the greatest damage, with 13 of its villages being severely impacted. 

Fazulhaq Ahadi, a media worker based in the city of Herat, said many of the villages that weren’t levelled by the quakes were at least 50% destroyed.

“These were the poorest people, all living in simple mud homes,” Ahadi told The New Humanitarian by phone moments after another aftershock struck.

Ahadi said the level of destruction in the villages of Zinda Jan is an example of what happens when disaster strikes a remote area that was already dealing with underdevelopment and insecurity for years.

During the rule of the former Western-backed Islamic Republic, Zinda Jan was the site of several car bombs, roadside bombings, and assassinations of government and security officials.

“There were entire areas that it would take you an hour-and-a-half to get to on an entirely unpaved dirt road,” Ahadi said. “Imagine that when you have to transport the dead and injured.”

Residents in Herat said the province continues to experience daily aftershocks, which are only increasing the sense of fear.

In Herat city, Sayed Wesal Fahim, 23, said thousands of people have chosen to sleep outside for the last two nights rather than risk being inside when another aftershock strikes.

“People will go to sleep on the street, near roundabouts, in parks as long as they aren’t inside or near any tall buildings,” Fahim, who recently gave up his studies because he couldn’t afford them, told The New Humanitarian.

When aftershocks strike, people immediately rush out of their homes, he said, adding: “No one wants to be inside anymore.”

The disaster comes only a year after a 5.9-magnitude earthquake led to at least 1,000 deaths in the eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost.

Will aid cuts affect the response?

Iran, Pakistan, China, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have all pledged to assist the Taliban-run government in the relief efforts, but with international aid agencies having already made cutbacks in the country, there is concern that the Islamic Emirate will have even more difficulty aiding those injured and displaced by the latest earthquakes.

“Some of the private pharmacies are now giving out bandages, gauze and simple pain medication to anyone who looks like they were injured in the earthquakes.”

In August, the World Health Organization appealed for $125 million to ensure it can continue to support 33 local hospitals. That same month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it would stop funding 25 government-run hospitals across the country, including in Herat, where the majority of the victims come from and are being treated.

Fahim said he has seen the impact of these cutbacks at the provincial hospital, which serves not just Herat, but the entirety of western Afghanistan: “It’s completely full, they’ve had to start examining and treating people outside in the garden.”

Local businesses are trying to do what they can, by providing basic supplies and medicine for free. “Some of the private pharmacies are now giving out bandages, gauze and simple pain medication to anyone who looks like they were injured in the earthquakes,” Fahim said.

The World Food Programme, which recently announced it would have to cut assistance to 10 million people in the country, said it had dispatched teams to the scene. Its teams have started distributing high-energy biscuits to 700 families in three districts of Herat. In an online statement, the group said it is also preparing “to reach up to 70,000 earthquake-affected people with food or cash”.

Acting Minister of Economy Din Mohammad Hanif vowed to make earthquake relief the focus of his ministry. The Ministry of Defense also dispatched rescue teams to the hardest-hit areas. Officials from the ministries of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Public Health also visited the affected villages.

“The entire government is in those villages right now, but they have so much work to do,” Ahadi said, confirming that teams had been sent to the area and were doing good work. 

A local effort

The Afghan people themselves have also started to find ways to contribute to the relief efforts. Fahim said he was very happy to hear that Afghans from all over the country are arriving in the affected areas ready to assist.

“These people were ignored for so long,” he said. “It’s nice to know that there are people coming to help them.”

The drive to support the survivors has spread to other major cities across the country.

“All of these people, young and old, are coming here and donating as much as they can through the donation box. All of us youth are gathered here to do whatever we can to help.”

In Kabul, Hasibullah Popal, 32, is part of an 80-person group that collects money from family and friends in Afghanistan and abroad to assist those in need.

“We always try and assist our compatriots as soon as possible in times of natural disaster, especially earthquakes and seasonal floods,” he said.

Popal said the group has been delivering aid since 2018 and previously helped out during the summer 2022 earthquakes in Paktika and Khost, as well as after recent floods in Logar province.

This time, the group has raised in excess of $1,000 over a 48-hour period. “We are ready to provide any financial and physical assistance to our Herati brothers in this time of need,” Popal said.

In Jalalabad, capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar, a group of young men has set up a tent to collect funds for the earthquake relief effort. Murshid Khan Murshid, who is helping to lead the volunteer group’s efforts, told The New Humanitarian he wants to show the world that the youth of Nangarhar are ready and willing to assist their countrymen in times of need.

“All of these people, young and old, are coming here and donating as much as they can through the donation box,” Murshid said of the drive, which will continue for two more days. “All of us youth are gathered here to do whatever we can to help.”

Meanwhile, Afghan celebrities and entrepreneurs are also finding ways to support the earthquake victims. For example, sports star Rashid Khan said he will donate all of his match fees from the Cricket World Cup in India to survivors. His foundation has also started a public fundraising campaign. And Mirwais Azizi, a Dubai-based real estate developer, said his foundation will donate 200 million afghanis (more than $2.6 million) to the relief efforts.

But even if the assistance does arrive, Ahadi, the media worker, said it will take a long time for people to move on, especially as Heratis are not used to earthquakes: “The people are afraid, and that fear won’t go away easily.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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