As global focus moves elsewhere, a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan worsens
UPDATE: Another 6.3 earthquake hit Herat province on Oct. 15. The latest quake was centered about 19 miles outside the city of Herat and was 4 miles below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It is the fourth quake the U.S.G.S. has measured at that magnitude in the same area in just over a week. In response to the earthquakes that struck on Oct. 7 and Oct. 11, the U.S. Agency for International Development is providing $12 million in immediate humanitarian assistance.
The war in Ukraine and other global crises and disasters have pulled global attention away from the ongoing struggle that is daily life in Afghanistan. Now a devastating earthquake has added to the hardships faced by Afghans, but the sudden eruption of violence begun by Hamas in southern Israel has similarly pulled global media and humanitarian focus away from their plight.
Sandesh Gonsalves, who leads the Jesuit Refugee Service team in Afghanistan, reports that Afghans are struggling in the wake of a “massive” earthquake that struck on Oct. 7. In the district of Zendeh Jan alone, he reports that “15 villages have been totally razed to ground and another 15 or more are uninhabitable due to the vulnerability of the mud houses.” According to U.N. sources, another 120 villages were damaged or destroyed after another quake struck on Oct. 11.
A 6.3 magnitude earthquake that rocked the province of Herat in western Afghanistan was followed by multiple aftershocks and a second earthquake of the same magnitude on Oct. 11. The United Nations and Afghan authorities report more than 2,400 deaths. The toll of the dead and injured is expected to rise.
Sandesh Gonsalves, who leads the Jesuit Refugee Service team in Afghanistan, reports that Afghans are struggling in the wake of a “massive” earthquake that struck on Oct. 7.
U.N. officials report that 90 percent of the dead and injured have been women and children. The Afghanistan representative for the United Nations Population Fund, Jaime Nadal, said there would have been no “gender dimension” to the death toll if the quake had happened at night.
“At that time of the day, men were out in the field,” Nadal told The Associated Press. “Many men migrate to Iran for work. The women were at home doing the chores and looking after the children. They found themselves trapped under the rubble.” Across Herat, many families are sleeping out in the streets and several hundred are reported missing, according to the United Nations.
International aid groups are rushing to respond to this latest disaster, but relief supplies are stretched thin, Mr. Gonsalves says, and there is no capacity at this time for rebuilding and rehabilitation. He was already concerned that the world was not attending to the vast humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Now the earthquakes and aftershocks have just piled on the suffering.
The government has limited capacity to respond, and most Afghans know they will have to rely on international relief and humanitarian agencies for assistance. “The need of the people affected [by the earthquake] definitely cannot be addressed with the relief material provided now,” he says.
According to U.N. sources, the humanitarian aid system in Afghanistan is already desperately overstretched and underfunded, with over 29 million Afghans in need of assistance. The country’s food rations from the World Food Program have also recently been substantially reduced because of funding cuts, leaving millions of families without enough to eat.
According to U.N. sources, the humanitarian aid system in Afghanistan is already desperately overstretched and underfunded, with over 29 million Afghans in need of assistance.
International donors have been reluctant to offer direct aid to Afghanistan since the restoration of the Taliban government. According to a recent analysis from the U.S. Institute of Peace, the international community is struggling “to find a balance between providing desperately needed aid while also pressuring the regime in Kabul to moderate its hardline policies. While Afghans need emergency assistance, the country will continue to deal with cycles of crises until its deep-seated economic challenges are addressed.”
The U.S. troop withdrawal during the last days of August 2021 was a violent capstone to a costly, decades-long experiment in nation-building. Since the withdrawal the United States has been wary about supporting the Taliban-led government.
J.R.S. remains committed to its mission to accompany the displaced people in Herat and Kabul provinces, Mr. Gonsalves says. He urges Americans to remember that the United States still has a role to play in addressing the persisting calamities of poverty and hunger in Afghanistan. Its people, he points out, have been suffering for decades because of conflict that both predates the U.S. intervention and persists in its aftermath.
Most Afghans are deeply grateful for assistance, Mr. Gonsalves says, but others, after experiencing the abrupt withdrawal of foreign aid following Afghanistan’s abandonment by American forces in August 2021 “feel betrayed and left alone to live their lives in a difficult environment.”
Mr. Gonsalves, a native of Maharashtra, India, returned to Afghanistan in April 2022 to begin the work of re-establishing the presence of the Jesuit Refugee Service after the Taliban restoration. J.R.S. continues to work with the country’s internally displaced people, many of whom remain unable to return to their villages decimated by years of war in provinces often far from cities Kabul and Herat.
He explains that while Afghans are happy that “bombs are no longer falling” in the rural provinces, they are not ready to return to communities that have been left in ruins. Many have lived for years in camps for internally displaced persons around Herat and Kabul and though their circumstances are bleak, they have managed to establish some kind of life in the camps and so far are reluctant to start over again in their home provinces.
Mr. Gonsalves reports that in accord with new restrictions and regulations J.R.S. has retooled the programs it offers in the camps, following a community development model that relies on recruiting volunteers from within the I.D.P. community to help maintain social and educational enrichment programs, job training and skills development that J.R.S. sponsors. I.D.P. participants can also count on J.R.S. for some nutritional and other support, and Mr. Gonsalves appears confident that the Jesuits can continue their programs under the restored Taliban order, though challenges, of course, remain.
The United States still has a role to play in addressing the persisting calamities of poverty and hunger in Afghanistan.
Though there have been some signs of life returning to the economy, at least before the setbacks created by the earthquake, many Afghans remain deeply reliant on humanitarian assistance. With winter looming and global attention fixed elsewhere, Mr. Gonsalves is deeply worried about a hunger crisis ahead. “The situation of the people is miserable,” he says, “and now, with the onset of winter, it is really going to be in a very bad shape.
“It is very important that the American community continues to support the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Gonsalves says. “There are so many crises all around the world, but Afghanistan also remains a prime location where [donors] need to support the communities and the people.
“Often they are feeling that ‘we are a forgotten people.’”
They will need a sign of support to get through the trying months ahead, he says. The young people he works with tell him they remain grateful “that J.R.S. has been with us, and [it has] always supported us, and they feel that they are part of the organization and it is not something like other organizations that just come and go, give things away and go out.”