Afghan conflict and upcoming winter complicate earthquake relief

By Bilal Sarwary

IRIN Contributor

Several districts near the epicentre of a 7.5-magnitude earthquake in Afghanistan are contested by government forces and Taliban insurgents, complicating relief to some of those affected by Monday’s quake. 

War casualties in northern Afghanistan have been rising sharply as government forces battle to halt the Taliban’s expanding reach, especially around the city of Kunduz. But Badakhshan Province, in Afghanistan’s far northeast, hardest hit by the earthquake, has also been the scene of fierce recent fighting.

Abdullah Najay Nazari, provincial council chief for Badakhshan, said the presence of Taliban insurgents created problems for the relief effort.

"In the districts of Yamgan and Warduj, and in parts of Jurm District, no help has been given to people," he told IRIN. "The government says help will be dispatched after an assessment, but how can the government send survey teams into areas where the Taliban are? These are areas where people suffered, and we also worry because of the cold weather.”

Warduj was taken by Taliban fighters as recently as 1 October and is still under the control of “anti-government elements”, according to a document listing districts captured by militants, shown to IRIN by a Western aid official. Three other districts in Badakhshan have fallen to the Taliban since June, including Yamgan, and although they have since been recaptured, security experts note that the Taliban often dominates villages and valleys while Afghan government forces control the district centres.

Since the earthquake, Afghan authorities have recorded 115 deaths, while at least 248 fatalities have been confirmed in neighbouring Pakistan. Those numbers, as well as the figure of more than 2,000 injuries, are expected to rise as remote parts of the Hindu Kush mountains are reached in the coming days.

The Taliban released a statement telling “charitable organisations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims of this earthquake”. Yet, aid agencies have been targeted previously in areas where the Taliban operate, including the World Food Programme, which temporarily suspended food delivery operations in Badakhshan Province in September after five of its trucks and staff disappeared overnight on their way back from making a delivery (the drivers were later released).

From a more extreme anti-“infidel” position, the Taliban is seen to have eased its stance towards international NGOs in recent years.  

Still, Madara Hettiarachchi, head of humanitarian programmes for Asia and the Middle East at Christian Aid, told IRIN that access to vulnerable families could be hampered due to security concerns, since the earthquake and conflict-affected areas overlap.

“We are still closely monitoring the situation, so it is hard to say whether this will be a problem,” Hettiarachchi told IRIN. “There may be potential difficulties, but we are hoping to get humanitarian access through our partners.”

The potential for overlap is not only restricted to Badakhshan. In neighbouring Takhar Province, also badly hit by the earthquake, the government has retaken one district recently from the Taliban, while there are “conflicting reports about (the) status” of three more, according to the document, which the Western official shared with IRIN under condition of anonymity.
 
In all, the document lists 24 districts that have been captured by insurgents since May, including those retaken by government forces, and 18 of them are in northern Afghanistan. Once considered to be one of the more secure regions, the Taliban has been making steady gains in the north this year, and briefly took Kunduz City earlier this month – the first time the group has held a provincial capital since it was ousted from government in 2001.

An IRIN reporter in Kunduz reported heavy fighting around the city on Tuesday evening.
 
Despite the potential for disruption due to the Taliban presence, the head of the National Disaster Management Authority’s provincial office in Badakhshan, Abdul Humayoon Dehqan, told UN officials his teams were reaching the hardest-hit areas near the epicentre in Jurm district. However, the Associated Press news agency quoted Dehqan as saying that some districts in Badakhshan remain under Taliban control “and we don’t know how we will be able to help people in those areas.”

Janu Rao, country director of Concern Worldwide’s Afghanistan programmes, told IRIN that 19 out of Badakhshan’s 28 districts were affected, with 2,700 homes or shelters partially or completely damaged. In Takhar Province, eight of 17 districts were affected, and more than 450 homes or shelters damaged. He cautioned that this preliminary assessment by the NGO and its partners was liable to change.

Before the snow comes

Confirming the fears of Hettiarachchi at Christian Aid, Rao said the onset of winter was likely to make relief efforts more difficult.

“With temperatures having fallen to below freezing in the past five days, resources – such as tents – that would normally be deployed are no longer suitable in meeting the needs of vulnerable people affected by the quake.”

Winter weather conditions also mean that the construction or reconstruction of more permanent shelters is also no longer a viable option. 

In neighbouring Pakistan, the army has taken the lead in earthquake response. Army Spokesman Lt General Asim Bajwal’s Twitter feed was a list of military relief efforts, including dispatching emergency supplies by road and air, clearing landslides and sending medical teams to hard-hit regions.
 
In Afghanistan, the military showed little sign of heavy involvement in relief efforts, but the earthquake did not halt a pre-planned operation against the Taliban.
 
An Afghan army officer, Sulaiman Shah, told IRIN that government forces were involved in “heavy fighting” to take back Kunduz Province’s Dashti Arche district, which the Taliban captured in June.

“Both sides are using heavy weapons,” Haji Bashir, a local tribal elder, told IRIN. “Two mortars have landed inside a home, injuring three children and a woman.”
 
Civilian casualties have risen sharply in Afghanistan this year, particularly in the past two months, as a resurgent Taliban tries to tighten its grip on areas beyond its rural southern strongholds.
 
The civilian toll this year is “projected to equal or exceed the record high numbers documented in 2014”, said a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which said 1,592 people were killed and 3,329 injured in the six months to June. The report was released on 5 August, days before the Taliban launched assaults on the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar and Kunduz.
 
The number of people killed or injured in recent fighting in the north is unknown, but a hospital that accepts only war-wounded people from northern and central Afghanistan has seen a dramatic increase in incoming patients. The hospital in Kabul, which is run by the Italian medical aid agency Emergency, has treated 2,640 patients this year until the beginning of October. That’s an increase from 2,402 over the entire course of 2014, according to Lucca Radaelli, a programme coordinator for Emergency.
 
As suffering has increased with rising conflict in the north, humanitarian agencies have been forced to halt or scale down activities, making it even harder to bring relief to earthquake-stricken areas.

Nazari, the provincial council chief in Badakhshan, demanded urgent action.

"I have called the local councils to see if we can provide help through them, and the Afghan Red Cresent has taken the responsibility to provide help,” he told IRIN. “We want the government to act fast. People, especially children, need help."

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(Additional reporting by Eleanor Weber-Ballard, Edited by Jared Ferrie and Andrew Gully)