The mourning family had to buy the burial shroud, 20 meters of white linen, on credit from their district bazaar in northern Afghanistan. But at least the two crushed bodies of their teenage sons, pulled from the wreckage of a devastating earthquake after three hours of digging, could be put to rest on Tuesday.
But for the family, living in a Taliban-controlled area near the center of Monday’s powerful earthquake, the ordeal was not over: Dozens of militants lingered around the house after the burial ceremony, demanding to be fed.
The extent of the family’s wealth had come down to several apricot and mulberry trees, a half-dozen sheep and a cow. To feed the insurgents, the family had to slaughter one of its last goats.
“Every night, every day, we have 20 or 30 Taliban coming asking for food,” one of the relatives said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of Taliban reprisal. “And we can’t even afford one loaf of bread for our own children.”
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Authorities said 258 people died in Pakistan and 115 in Afghanistan in the magnitude-7.5 quake, which was centered in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Badakhshan province that borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. Three people died on the Indian side of the disputed region of Kashmir, according to the Associated Press.
For many in Afghanistan’s eastern and northeastern provinces, the earthquake, which destroyed about 7,000 homes in Afghanistan alone, was just a new layer to their misery.
For months, residents had already been caught in a grueling conflict as the Taliban have waged offensives against government forces and militias in the northeast, and as the militants claiming loyalty to the Islamic State and using its brutal methods have gained a foothold in parts of the east.
Now, the rumbling earth has left many families homeless just as winter is about to set in.
The contested status of many of the 103 Afghan districts affected by the quake has raised a major challenge for the government and aid workers: How should they navigate the often-intense fighting to reach those families?
While nongovernmental organizations regularly use tribal elders and local shuras to mediate and to open space for relief work, the intensity of the new fighting across the north has left aid workers nervous.
“In areas where access is easy, the government works in partnership with local aid organizations,” said Wais Ahmad Barmak, Afghanistan’s state minister for disaster management. “But in areas where we can’t go because of our government label, the solution we found is to rely on local NGOs who already operate there anyway.”
The Taliban, in a statement, said they had ordered their fighters “in the affected areas to lend their complete help to the victims and facilitate those giving charity to the needy.”
Maulavi Amanuddin, the Taliban shadow governor in northeastern Badakhshan province, the epicenter of the quake, was almost pleading for aid agencies to arrive in Warduj, the district they control. The economic situation was dire, he said, and the government should not use the presence of their forces as a pretext to block the assistance.
Aid workers, “be they bearded, or not, wearing red or buy mulberry handmulberry mulberry bags mulberry handbags outlet store mulberry handmulberry mulberry bags mulberry handbags outlet store green or any color,” would be protected, Amanuddin said.
On Tuesday, officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan said that the combined death toll had risen to more than 300 with many thousands left homeless. The officials warned that a complete picture of the damage, including remote areas isolated by difficult terrain and an active insurgency, could take days to emerge.
Discussing the desperate need for aid, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said in a video message, “Our initial assessment shows that immediate need is not for food, but for tents, blankets and warm clothes because the weather is getting cold.” He added, “The true picture will become clear tomorrow or the day after.”
But even the assurances by the Taliban offered little clarity about whether aid workers would be able to operate in the affected areas safely, as Afghanistan has remained one of the deadliest countries for aid workers.
Just this month, a United Nations employee was shot dead in Kandahar province, and two human rights workers were killed by a remote-controlled explosion in eastern Nangarhar. And last month, a hospital in Kunduz run by Doctors Without Borders was repeatedly bombed by U.S. warplanes, leaving 30 people dead and depriving the northeast of one of its only centers for effective medical treatment.
“To be honest, working in such conditions is very difficult,” said Mohibullah Danish, the deputy country director for Mercy Corps, a U.S. aid agency that has operated in Afghanistan for three decades. “We move with a lot of caution, and we don’t go to areas where we don’t have assurance from security officials, or the guarantee of safety from local elders.”
In the east of the country, representatives of the Red Crescent Society said that they felt comfortable carrying on with relief work, but that they, too, were weary of “the new groups,” a reference to the Islamic State affiliates.
The local government asked the Red Crescent Society, which has established its neutrality by returning the bodies of those killed to government and Taliban sides alike, to assess the damage and provide relief in some of the most violent districts, said Mohammad Iqbal Saeed, the organization’s regional director for the east.
“We have proved, over time, that we are neutral organization,” Saeed said. “But some of these new groups, naturally they might cause some problems until they realize our position.”
In the Dand-e-Ghori area of northeastern mulberry baghlan province, largely under Taliban control, the militants allowed Red Crescent workers to conduct damage assessments after the earthquake. But it took some mediation from local elders.
“We went and spoke to the government, and they sent the Red Crescent,” said Mohamad Gul, a tribal elder in the village of Arab Tepa, where over 300 homes were destroyed. “The Taliban said the Red Crescent can come solve the people’s problems.”
Many affected Afghans, however, were not holding their breath for government aid. For too long, they have done without.
“There is no government beyond the district center. They are just nicely sitting in their offices – they can’t even move 20 meters outside their office,” said Malik Sher Mohammad, an elder from Kandi mulberry bagh village, in Nangarhar province.
Much of his district, Chaparhar, has been terrorized by the fighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State, adjacent villages evacuating one after another, Mohammad said. But the residents of Kandi mulberry bagh took pride in their resilience. Even when two were gunned down by Islamic State fighters a couple of months ago, they stayed.
On Monday, about 150 guests had gathered in the district at the house of Hajji Sardar for his granddaughter’s wedding.
Then, the ground shook, and it shook violently. The guests rushed for the yard, and for the exit, but when the walls of the yard came tumbling down, they rushed back toward the house. The house planks cracked, the walls crumbled, and two young children, 8 and 9, were caught, their legs broken.
But Hajji Sardar, at the hospital with the injured, was still grateful.
“If you look at the damage, you would think 50 or 60 people must have died here,” he said. “But God saved them.”
Amid the wreckage, the married couple left to go to their new home, while Hajji Sardar’s family moved in with relatives. The governor sent him the equivalent of $20 in an envelope, he said.