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Quakes killed thousands in Afghanistan. Critics say Taliban relief efforts fall short

Children walk past makeshift shelters in front of the Jami Mosque in Herat just two days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in western Afghanistan on Oct. 15.
Mohsen Karimi
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AFP via Getty Images
Children walk past makeshift shelters in front of the Jami Mosque in Herat just two days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in western Afghanistan on Oct. 15.

A series of devastating earthquakes over the last two weeks in western Afghanistan has resulted in thousands of casualties and left thousands more homeless.

Aid workers on the ground say the Taliban is ill-prepared to deal with such a catastrophe. NPR talked with five aid workers involved in the response; they say recovery has been further hampered by the isolation from international support that resulted when the Taliban took power in 2021 and their decision to ban and remove women staffers from aid organizations.

"There are a lot of gaps in the ANDMA's [Afghan National Disaster Management Agency] capacity, in terms of structure, policy and planning, logistics, but most importantly in human resources and expertise," says Basir, an Afghan disaster management expert who asked to be identified by his first name, fearing Taliban reprisals for being critical of their government.

Basir, an academic who has worked with previous Afghan governments on disaster management efforts, joined volunteers in Herat to help rescue survivors from the debris.

Even a week after the first major quake, Basir says he observed that rescue efforts were lagging due to lack of equipment such as life detectors, vibration or seismic alarms and even search-and-rescue dogs. He also says there were gaps in operational capacity and that workers lacked training in rescue, excavation and first response.

Rescue workers from ANDMA and volunteers have resorted to using sticks, shovels and even bare hands to remove survivors and bodies from the debris, he says.

"Many of the trained professionals from the previous administration had already left the country and it created obvious challenges in dealing with this disaster," he says, adding that the response from neighboring countries and the international community has also been disappointing.

Doctors and paramedics treat injured earthquake survivors in front of the Herat Regional Specialized Hospital.
Mirwais Amir / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Doctors and paramedics treat injured earthquake survivors in front of the Herat Regional Specialized Hospital.

A troubled recovery effort

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the earthquakes have collectively killed more than 1,480 people and affected 27,150 across six districts of Herat. The Taliban's Ministry of Disaster Management gave a higher number, stating that casualties are well over 4,000.

"There are villages that have been completely destroyed with not a single house left standing," Jamie Nadal, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Afghanistan, tells NPR. "As of [October 16], slightly over 200 villages have been assessed by the U.N. But we know that more than 500 have been affected by the earthquakes."

Rescue operations have been slowed not only by frequent tremors but also by lack of resources and leadership, aid workers say.

"Our rescue team was sent [to Zindajan on the day of the first quake], and I witnessed many injured and wounded people who we could have helped with our volunteers and first aid, but unfortunately we were not allowed to advance," says a female aid worker who identified herself as Nargis.

Nargis, who is employed by an international NGO, says she faces harassment by local Taliban authorities and requested that her full name be withheld to protect her family. She says the Taliban viewed her with hostility for her association with Western organizations. "When I arrived to the site of the earthquake, one of the Taliban officials came to me and said that this earthquake is God's wrath because of infidels like you," she says. Ironically, she says the same Taliban official later approached her to add his family to the list of aid recipients.

The Taliban's interference in aid, Nargis says, is also slowing down rescue and relief efforts. "Some local and government officials wanted all the aid allocated for the earthquake victims to be shared with them before distribution," she says.

Aid workers on the ground tell NPR they are struggling to provide accurate casualty figures. "We are still assessing the situation, the figures are likely to rise as many families are still missing members who might be under the debris," said Rahimi, an aid worker from Herat. NPR is using only his last name because the NGO he works for has forbidden staff to talk to the media. Ten days after the quake the authorities should have a better idea of casualties, he says, but parts of the affected area have yet to be excavated.

Restrictions imposed by the Taliban have also fueled concerns about ensuring long-term support and resources. These concerns predate the earthquakes. A U.N. OCHA report released just days before the quakes documented 127 incidents in August alone that hampered the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide assistance, 99% of which were attributed to the Taliban. The incidents included detention of humanitarian workers; interference with programming, staff recruitment and beneficiary selection; and requests for staff lists and sensitive data.

In the wake of this disaster, the Taliban has appealed to "rich Afghan businesses" to donate toward relief efforts. However, Afghans question the sustainability of such efforts.

Basir, the disaster management expert, says the Taliban appears to focus on collecting donations instead of developing long-term plans for survivors. "The way they [the Taliban's ministry] are operating now is like a charity or a foundation, not like a government ministry that should have a plan or policy to address these challenges," he says.

The absence of women aid workers matters

The earthquake has had a disproportionate impact on females. According to UNICEF, over 90% of those killed were women and children – even as women survivors also bear the brunt of the recovery effort's shortfalls.

Nadal attributes the higher casualties among women and children to the timing of the disaster. "The first earthquake happened at around 11 in the morning, and at that time of the day many men are working in the fields, while a lot of the women and children are in the houses," he says

What's more, the Taliban's rigid strictures on gender have made it difficult for women to benefit from post-earthquake aid.

Since taking over, the Taliban have imposed a number of restrictions on women's freedoms and movements, including a ban on women working for NGOs.

"The Taliban's ban on women aid workers will inevitably have an impact on situations like this," says Heather Barr, associate director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Afghanistan being a deeply conservative society, public spaces are often gender segregated, which means women's access to resources and support during a disaster becomes severely limited if women [from aid groups] aren't allowed to help them," she says. That makes it much harder for women survivors of the quake to access medical services or food aid.

Nargis's experience reinforces this theory. "We were already facing a shortage of female staff due to the bans on women. Many of our projects had been suspended and offices closed down," Nargis says, adding it was harder to mobilize women volunteers to the scene due to the Taliban's rule forbidding women from travel without mahrams (male guardians).

While several organizations have defied the ban and continued to bring in female staff and volunteers, women aid workers face resistance from local Taliban officials in fulfilling their duties, Nargis said.

"For example, one of the basic needs we identified among women survivors was for hygiene products, and [we] procured sanitary napkins for them. But some of the Taliban members prevented distribution, saying that it will encourage heresy and lack of faith among the women," she says. The Taliban members, it seems, deemed feminine hygiene products as un-Islamic.

The Taliban has not addressed criticisms of their earthquake response, though social media accounts of Taliban officials have highlighted the presence of women, particularly health-care workers, among volunteer teams at the site of the disasters.

Aid workers say that public gesture of inclusion, made after appeals from various organizations, was too little and too late.

"One of the challenges we faced in the first few days was burying the bodies of women who had died, since there were no women to help wash the bodies and fulfill religious requirements," Rahimi says. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies eventually stepped in to provide dignified burial services for victims.

The scene after a series of earthquakes in the Zendeh Jan district of Herat province on Oct. 9, as volunteers look for survivors and dead bodies. Some Afghan aid specialists say Taliban recovery efforts have been inadequate.
Mohsen Karimi / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The scene after a series of earthquakes in the Zendeh Jan district of Herat province on Oct. 9, as volunteers look for survivors and dead bodies. Some Afghan aid specialists say Taliban recovery efforts have been inadequate.

Fading hopes for finding loved ones

With passing days, the hope of finding loved ones, even their bodies, are fading.

Nearly a week after the first tremors brought down his house in Zindajan district of Herat, Ghulam Mortaza, 37-year-old daily wage laborer, is still searching in the debris of the home. "I have lost everything to this earthquake. Two of my children and my mother were killed. My 9-year-old daughter is still missing," he told NPR over a phone call.

In the backdrop of the call, his wife 33-year-old Marzia, could be heard weeping softly. She lost her parents in the disaster. But the couple has no time to mourn because they continue to look for their daughter.

"We have been looking under every rock and stone around us, but there is still no sign of her," Marzia said, between sobs. "I am digging this ruined land by myself to find my little girl."

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

Hikmat Noori is an Afghan journalist who covers the intersection of culture and politics in South Asia. He tweets at @noori1st

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruchi Kumar
Hikmat Noori