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Natural disasters

Afghanistan earthquake leaves homeless waiting for uncertain relief

Taliban say they are working around the clock but need more international aid

Afghan men search for survivors June 23 in the debris of a Paktika Province house destroyed by an earthquake.   © Reuters

KABUL -- When the first tremors of Wednesday's deadly earthquake shook Afghanistan, 26-year-old Sabir ran out into the night.

"I rushed out of the house, and within minutes another quake came that lasted longer," said Sabir, who lives in Khost Province, several hundred kilometers from the epicenter. "A lot of houses were destroyed that night, and many people were buried under the rubble."

The 5.9 magnitude quake -- the country's deadliest in two decades -- struck the provinces of Khost and Paktika, killing more than 1,000 people. Bakhtar News Agency reports that more than 1,500 have been injured.

Numerous homes have been destroyed and lives upended in a nation already struggling against poverty and malnutrition. The disaster poses a test for the Taliban leadership that returned to power last year.

Sabir's home and family survived the earthquake, but his father's brother, who lived in Paktika's Gayan district, did not.

"The village had 30 homes. All of them are leveled," he said. "My uncle and 14 of his family members died."

More than 3,000 houses were destroyed by the quake, Reuters quotes Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in Patika, as saying.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry is at the forefront of rescue efforts. Five helicopters in Paktika are helping with medical evacuations, and more than 45 ambulances are onsite to provide immediate care.

Afghanistan "is doing everything to speed up the rescue efforts," said Bilal Karimi, the Taliban's deputy spokesperson. "We are using all the resources at our disposal to help the bereaved families."

Sabir corroborates that the Taliban are helping earthquake victims round-the-clock.

"The authorities have been very helpful in evacuating citizens and taking injured people to the hospital by helicopter," he said. "They are also providing financial assistance" to families of the deceased.

Karimi added, "Local people are helping the rescue teams, but the challenges are high and so are the numbers. We are working day and night and urge the international community to come forward and provide all the help for Afghans."

Afghanistan is a tectonically active region that experiences moderate to strong earthquakes every year. Quakes have killed more than 10,000 people in the country since 1980, according to a disaster risk profile report by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. Average yearly damage due to quakes is estimated at $80 million.

State media reported that Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhand has announced 100 million afghanis ($1.13 million) in emergency aid to help families affected by the earthquake. A family from the Gayan district whose members survived but lost their home asked the government to send assistance to them as well.

"Authorities only help those who have lost their family members or people who are injured," said Assadullah, a family member.

The disaster comes as Afghanistan grapples with a severe economic crisis following the Taliban takeover last year.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi said in a statement that Afghanistan appreciates all the aid pledged by relief agencies and some governments. But the widespread damage caused by the earthquake requires more help.

"The government, sadly, is under sanctions so it is financially unable to assist the people to the extent that is needed," Balkhi said.

Assadullah, who is unemployed and lacks even the money to feed his family, worries about the added cost of rebuilding their house, which was destroyed.

"People are living on the streets as their houses are completely destroyed," he said. "We at least need tents urgently."

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