Devastating earthquake in Afghanistan compounds humanitarian crisis

The Taliban leaders of Afghanistan are appealing for outside help after a devastating earthquake killed at least 1,000 people Wednesday and injured another 1,500. The quake struck in the eastern mountains near the Pakistan border. Officials warned the death toll may still rise as search efforts continue. Samira Sayed-Rahman, of the International Rescue Committee, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a country already suffering through economic and humanitarian catastrophe, the earthquake in Afghanistan today makes an awful situation even worse.

    With the Taliban government under severe international sanctions, getting aid and comfort, not to mention medical care, to the remote mountains in the east is a monumental task.

    Here's Amna Nawaz.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It was Afghanistan's deadliest earthquake in two decades. Villagers there recounted the terrifying moment their homes turned to rubble. The 6.1-magnitude quake struck this rural region in the night. Houses made of mud, bricks, and stone crumbled in an instant.

  • Faisal, Paktika Province (through translator):

    It was about midnight when the quake struck. It destroyed the houses of our neighbors. When we arrived, there were many dead and wounded. They sent us to the hospital. I also saw many dead bodies.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The epicenter was located in the eastern part of the country near the Pakistani border. Most of the dead were in Paktika Province.

    Damaged roadways in this mountainous region have kept rescuers from reaching the area. Residents are resorting to using their bare hands to dig through the rubble searching for survivors.

    Mustafa Madatkhail is the program director for the International Medical Corps, one of several humanitarian organizations helping with the emergency response.

  • Mustafa Madatkhail, Afghanistan Program Director, International Medical Corps:

    There was a lot of injuries and deaths. It was unable to covered by one NGO, by two NGOs, even by five, six, even by 20 NGOs. It was difficult. It was a mass casualty. I'm sure that deaths and injuries will increase more and more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The few helicopters that were able to reach the quake zone evacuated the wounded for treatment and delivered much needed medical supplies and food. But responding to a tragedy of this magnitude will be a major test for the Taliban.

    Most international aid was stopped to Afghanistan after they seized power 10 months ago. Today, Taliban leaders desperately appealed for help.

    Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, Afghan Taliban Deputy Minister of Natural Disaster (through translator): When such a big incident happens in any country, there is a need for help from other countries. It is very difficult for us to be able to respond to this huge incident. We ask the international community to cooperate with us and continue their support.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Biden has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess how the U.S. will respond to the disaster.

    Joining me now is Samira Sayed Rahman. She's a communication and advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee and is based in Kabul.

    Samira, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for joining us.

  • Samira Sayed Rahman, International Rescue Committee:

    Thank you for having me today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let's just start with what we know.

    What have you been able to learn about the extent of the devastation? How many people have been injured or killed? What do you know right now?

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    What I'm hearing from the ground is that it is an absolutely devastating situation.

    We have upwards of 1,000 people killed, scores more injured. We hear that 1,800 homes have been destroyed as a result of this earthquake that took place in the middle of the night. These areas that are most affected are some of the poorest and most remote areas in the country.

    They lack the appropriate infrastructure. People do not have the economic means to build proper housing. And, as a result, most of these areas had mud homes that have basically been razed to the ground.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And you mentioned this happened in the middle of the night, meaning people were at home sleeping when this happened.

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    Yes. People were in their in their beds, in their homes. It was around 2:00 a.m. We felt a jolt here in Kabul, didn't think much of it.

    And then, slowly, the news started to come in. It took a while, due to the fact that telecom towers had also gone down and been damaged. And that's also impacting some of the recovery efforts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is a remote part of the country. As you mentioned, telecom towers have now been impacted. What does this mean for what you and your organization are able to do right now or not do?

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    It's very challenging.

    Again, Afghanistan is currently in the midst of a horrific economic crisis and a worsening humanitarian crisis, even before this earthquake took place. Humanitarian organizations right now are coordinating with one another, so that we can better understand the impact and the scale of the destruction that has occurred, and how best we can spread out the resources and the capacities that we have in order to reach the most number of affected people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the government? As we know, this Taliban government's been in power now since August of 2021. Do you know anything about their resources or capability to respond?

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    Well, one of the areas which has been struggling quite a bit over the course of the last nine months is the health sector.

    The health sector relied heavily on donor funding. And much of that has been suspended over the course of that nine months. I visited a hospital in Paktia, a neighboring province to the one that has been — the two that have been affected,just a couple of weeks ago. And this is a regional hospital that is supposed to cover Paktia, Paktika, Logar, and Khost.

    They were struggling. They were struggling. You had three babies to an incubator. You had hallways lined with women holding malnourished babies. The health sector in Afghanistan is at a brink of collapse right now. And this is only going to get worse with this catastrophe that happened.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the lack of donor funds. That's largely because no country in the world recognizes, officially recognizes this Taliban government.

    Do you worry that lack of donor aid coming in will now hinder your and other organizations' ability to respond to this latest tragedy?

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    You know, a lack of funds has been the greatest issue in dealing with the humanitarian crisis over the course of the past nine months.

    We are struggling to get money into the country with the banking sector and sanctions that have been put in place. A lot of small and local NGOs that do operate in these remote areas have basically shut down and are not operational. So a lot of the burden has fallen upon international organizations, as we do have mechanisms in order to bring funds into the country.

    However, it's still not enough. The situation is worsening by the day. And now we have this catastrophe of this earthquake that took place that is only going to exacerbate the humanitarian aid community, as well as the public sector.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Samira Sayed Rahman. She's with the International Rescue Committee, joining us tonight from Kabul.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Samira Sayed Rahman:

    Thank you for having me.

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