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‘We Have Nothing’: Afghan Quake Survivors Despair Over Recovery

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

Like many in this desolate stretch of eastern Afghanistan, the small bag was the only food his family had before a devastating earthquake decimated half of the village last week.

For nearly a year since the Taliban seized power and an economic crisis engulfed the country, villagers could no longer afford the firewood he once collected and sold for a few dollars a day. The price of food in the local bazaar doubled. He racked up 500,000 Afghanis — over $5,000 — in debt from shopkeepers until they refused to lend to him anymore.

Then on Wednesday, the mountains around him erupted in a violent rumble that brought the walls of his home crashing down and killed six members of his family. Looking at the remains of his home, he was at a loss.

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

The earthquake this past week wreaked havoc on 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 seen unrelenting hardship for decades, and had been desperately hoping for any sort of respite after the war ended and the Taliban seized control of the country.

The people of Geyan District saw little benefit from the American era in Afghanistan. This is among the poorest places in the country, and people survive hand-to-mouth with the little money they earn collecting firewood and harvesting pine nuts each fall. Then, as now, the government was distant, and families have had to rely on each other when times get hard.

The advent of Taliban rule has not changed that here. Though government officials are scrambling to bring aid stores to the area after the quake, it will have little lasting effect on the worsening desperation of daily life, or the suffering from widespread death.

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

After the Taliban seized power, many residents hoped that the end of the war would bring some relief. Instead, the shelling from Pakistan continued as militants emboldened by the Taliban takeover flooded into the area. A dire economic crisis, set off by international sanctions and millions in foreign aid vanishing practically overnight, decimated people’s incomes and sent food prices soaring. Today around half the country’s 39 million people are facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to the World Food Program.

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

“We were very happy that the war ended, we thought that our lives would be better — but things are more dangerous now than during the war because of the economy,” said Sher Mohammad, 60. “We aren’t thinking about bombs now, but we’re dying day by day because we don’t have food to eat.”

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

The earthquake Wednesday morning had completely destroyed Mr. Mohammad’s home 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 relatives’ house was his last remaining lifeline.

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

But after the economy all but collapsed following the Taliban takeover last August, suddenly each brother could barely earn enough to feed their own children — much less share with each other. Unable to provide more than stale bread and tea for his family, Mr. Mohammad summoned his 22-year-old and 20-year-old home from school to help makes ends meet 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 left everything — I doubt they’ll ever be able to continue their education.”

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

As men waited to register their family’s names to receive help, military helicopters ferrying Taliban officials buzzed overhead while trucks loaded with supplies from the capital, Kabul, trickled into the village. It took over 24 hours for many of the vehicles to make the 150-mile trek down the unpaved roads that wind through the rugged terrain dotted with shrubs, damp riverbeds, beige mudbrick homes that protrude from the hillside and a patchwork of farmland that blankets the valleys in between.

Two days after the earthquake, most residents interviewed by The New York Times said they had not received any aid from the government. Instead, just as they had during crises under the previous Western-backed government, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake they relied mostly on each other.

Villagers from neighboring districts whose homes remained intact led the efforts to rescue people trapped under the rubble — digging with little more than their bare hands — and purchased burial shrouds, 20 meters of white linen, for the hundreds of people killed. They drove severely injured victims to hospitals hours away in their small, rundown Toyota Corollas. Relatives from across the province brought bread, rice and plastic tarps to make makeshift shelters. Dazed residents shuffled through the debris of their homes desperate to recover what they could: A bag of rice here, a teakettle there.

Up a winding riverbed from the aid distribution site, Sharif, 25, started sifting through the rubble of his family home around 4:30 a.m. on Friday morning, looking for any kitchen supplies and food he could find. Two hours later, as he pulled their freezer from the remains of one room, the wall of another came crashing down — drawing dozens of his neighbors who feared he had been trapped under the rubble.

Despite it all, he counted himself lucky. His entire family survived the earthquake on Wednesday after he woke up when the first tremors struck and told everyone to run to the yard — a lesson his parents had ingrained in him growing up in the mountains where nature itself waged a war on its residents.

“Many times they gathered us and told us if there is heavy rain or hail do not leave our rooms, stay safe inside, but if the ground begins to shake go outside because the walls of dust and wood can collapse,” he said.

But as he shifted through the rubble, the gratitude he felt for the safety of his family was giving way to despair over what they would do now.

For two years, they had barely earned enough to eat after travel restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic prevented his father from going to Saudi Arabia for work — an income stream that sustained his family for decades. Even after those restrictions loosened, the Taliban takeover pushed up the price of obtaining a visa beyond what his father could afford as hundreds of thousands of Afghans look to leave the country to find employment.

He and his brothers tried to make up the lost income selling firewood but as the economy worsened, they could not find anyone to buy it. Shopkeepers stopped agreeing to give them food on credit. He stopped spending as much time in his home; the cries of his children begging for food he did not have broke his heart, he said.

After the earthquake, he built a small tent for his family from tarps that his relatives in a nearby district brought them. Next to it, their two cows and three goats milled about while his wife and their children sorted through the few pots and pans they had recovered from the rubble.

“After this earthquake, I totally lost control” Sharif’s wife, Ali Marjana, 22, said, sitting on the ground 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’re living like animals now.”

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