June 26, 2022

‘We jumped in the car as soon as we heard’: Afghans race to help amid wait for international aid

‘We jumped in the car as soon as we heard’: Afghans race to help amid wait for international aid

While the Taliban and aid agencies rushed to respond, locals were already on their way bringing much-needed support

Said Shirin cooking in Gayan.

Soon after the 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit southeastern Afghanistan in the early hours of Wednesday, Taliban officials and aid agencies started flooding in, carrying truckloads of food, blankets, tents and medical supplies for the victims.

But amid the chaos of first responders was another group of Afghans – many of whom said they packed their bags as soon as they heard about the earthquake, travelling to Paktika’s hard-hit Gayan district independently, hoping to help.

More than 1,000 people have died in the quake that has levelled at least 35 villages across the provinces of Paktika and Khost, while more than 1,500 are severely injured – many of them since transported to better medical facilities in the capital, Kabul, and other provincial hubs.

Tremors are still being felt in the area, sending shockwaves of fear into an already vulnerable population.

While aid groups are setting up their long-practised, and often expensive emergency response work – the United Nations estimated costs at approximately $15m – it is the much more affordable help of local Afghans that seems to have reached the quake’s victims first, many say.

On a hilltop overlooking the remote Gayan district, a rough mountain terrain of rocky roads and collapsed mud-brick villages, Zakim Khan, 40, has pitched a tent with the help of local volunteers.

The quake has reduced the family’s house to rubble, and killed their 13-year-old daughter, Eid Marjana. Saima, Khan’s wife, says it was still dark when her husband pulled their daughter’s limp body out from under the rubble. “A wall collapsed on to her and she was immediately dead,” Saima says, her eyes filling with tears that she silently wipes with her scarf. “My relatives washed her dead body and buried her. I tried to help, but I couldn’t get myself to do it.”

Eid Marjana was buried on one of the hills surrounding Gayan. The small district centre is now surrounded by the freshly dug graves of more than 250 casualties.

Saima, surviving daughter of Zakim and Saima Khan. Her older sister, Eid Marjana, was killed.

Saima has one daughter left – seven-year-old Shama – and she can’t let go of her hand as she sits crosslegged on her tent’s floor. It hasn’t been major aid organisations, but rather individual Afghans who have provided the family with the most support.

“We’ve had visits from businesspeople who travelled here from Kabul and offered money, as well as doctors from nearby villages looking at the small injuries my family sustained. Volunteers arrived from faraway provinces to help clean up the rubble,” Khan tells the Observer. It doesn’t bring back his daughter, but it’s helpful, he adds.

Said Shirin, a 55-year-old man from neighbouring Urgun district, travelled to Gayan to help cook for up to 1,300 people; and the styrofoam boxes filled with fresh rice reach Khan and his family, too. “It’s easier to travel now,” Shirin says. “During the war, it was often too dangerous to travel by road because of all the fighting. This is the first time in years that we can move easily.”

Gayan’s district governor, Malawi Rahmatullah Darwish, says that he remained optimistic, mostly because he’s seen Afghans from all over offering their time to help. “People are kind and they do what they can,” he says. He stands surrounded by his staff and sports a shiny watch and henna-tattooed feet in dusty sandals.

He has been coordinating with many local volunteers, he says, and is used to responding to emergencies. “Before the Islamic Emirate, I was a Taliban commander of about 100 fighters. There were frequent drone strikes and bombardments and I was responsible to make sure the injured [many of them civilians] would get treatment,” he explains.

That was just over a year ago, when he was still living in hiding. Now he’s in charge in Gayan. Back then, the Taliban staged regular attacks; today they are trying to run the government.

Ihsan Hasaand travelled to Gayan too, providing food and household items to 80 families with the help of Aseel, a small collective and distribution platform of Afghan volunteers that has mostly been supported by the Afghan diaspora overseas. Many wire money to Afghanistan using hawala, an unofficial money transfer service, circumventing sanctions affecting the Afghan banking system. Aseel’s network spans across the country, with volunteers in almost every district.

“We jumped in the car in Kabul as soon as we heard about the earthquake, and we’re now heading back – a 10-hour drive – to bring more supplies,” Hasaand says. He hopes for the collective to expand. Since the Taliban’s takeover last August, Afghanistan has been thrown into an economic crisis, with soaring prices and increased unemployment. Poverty is rife. “Our people need help right now,” Hasaand said. “It’s the least we can offer them.”

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