Survivors of Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in more than two decades have been left without food, water, or shelter as they wait in devastated remote villages for aid.
Wednesday’s magnitude 5.9 earthquake in the rugged eastern provinces – which killed at least 1,000 people and destroyed or damaged about 10,000 houses – has downed mobile phone towers and power lines while triggering rock and mudslides which blocked mountain roads.
Aid was beginning to trickle into some affected areas on Thursday after initial difficulties reaching the affected provinces.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Latifi, reporting from Gardez in the eastern Paktia province, said, “While helicopters have been instrumental in transferring the injured and providing assistance, there aren’t enough to go around.”
Mawlawi Khalid, commander of the Taliban’s 203 Mansoori Army Corps, told Al Jazeera that all helicopters had been brought from Kandahar and Kabul. “Of course we still need much more, there is still a shortage,” he said.
In the badly-hit Paktika province, resident Yaqoub Khan told Al Jazeera all the buildings had been razed to the ground, including the local mosque. “There is nothing left here, only the injured,” he said.
Authorities say the earthquake left about 2,000 people wounded.
Ali Khan, a resident of the Gayan district of Paktika, told Al Jazeera the ground began shaking at approximately 1:30am local time. “My family – 10 people, including children – were killed,” he said.
Khan said finding medical help for his surviving relatives was impossible. “There is a private clinic but it’s 30 minutes away. There is no government hospital,” he said.
In some of the worst affected districts, survivors said they were even struggling to find equipment to bury their dead and lacked the most basic provisions.
“There are no blankets, tents, there’s no shelter. Our entire water distribution system is destroyed. There is literally nothing to eat,” 21-year-old Zaitullah Ghurziwal told the AFP news agency in his village in Paktika province.
The rescue operations are a major test for the Taliban, which took over as US-led international forces withdrew in August after two decades of war.
The Taliban ministry of defence claimed as early as Wednesday that 90 percent of search and rescue operations had been completed.
On Friday, Mohammad Nassim Haqqani, a spokesperson for the disaster ministry, told the Reuters news agency that “the search operation has finished”. He did not elaborate on why the search for survivors was being called off after some 48 hours. Survivors have been pulled from the rubble of other earthquakes after considerably more time.
Two retired officers in Nepal involved in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 people expressed their surprise to Reuters that rescue operations could be close to completion so soon, but noted that if most damaged homes were small, it was possible.
The Taliban government has made repeated calls for international aid, despite the country being cut off from much foreign assistance because of sanctions.
“We call on natural disaster management agencies and the international community to provide immediate and comprehensive aid to the Afghan people,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry, said in a tweet.
According to the United Nations, its refugee agency UNHCR has dispatched tents, blankets and plastic sheeting; the World Food Programme has delivered food stock for about 14,000 people in Paktika province, and the World Health Organization has provided 10 tonnes of medical supplies sufficient for 5,400 surgeries.
However, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Thursday that the Taliban has been resisting recent efforts by the UN to help get humanitarian funding into the country and has been interfering in the delivery of aid.
“The formal banking system continues to block transfers due to excessive de-risking, impacting payment channels and causing breakdowns in supply chains,” Griffiths told the Security Council.
The UN has been trying to kick-start a system – described as a Humanitarian Exchange Facility (HEF) – to swap millions of aid dollars for Afghan currency in a plan to stem aid and economic crises and bypass Taliban leaders who are under sanctions.
Taliban authorities have also been increasingly interfering with the delivery of humanitarian aid, despite a pledge to UN officials in September that they would not, Griffiths said.
“National and local authorities are increasingly seeking to play a role in the selection of beneficiaries and channelling assistance to people on their own priority lists, citing an almost universal level of need,” he said.
The devastating earthquake has added to a number of emergencies facing Afghanistan, including its worst drought in 30 years and massive poverty.
The country also has the highest number of people in the world facing the risk of famine.
The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) on Thursday said preparations were under way to avoid a cholera outbreak in the aftermath of the earthquake, as half a million cases of acute, watery diarrhoea had already been reported.
“Cholera outbreaks in the aftermath of earthquakes are of particular and serious concern,” OCHA said in a statement on Thursday. “Preparations to avoid an outbreak are under way.”
OCHA also said it was seeking to confirm that search and rescue operations were nearly finished.
Save the Children said more than 118,000 children were affected by the disaster.
“Many children are now most likely without clean drinking water, food and a safe place to sleep,” the international charity said.
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