Among the rubble lies hope

We’re in Barmal, a remote and isolated part of Afghanistan. In June, the district was struck by a deadly earthquake. The destruction was incomprehensible. But out of the rumble there is some hope: the community has been re-connected to the outside world.  

Survivors described a sound like nothing they have ever heard before, like an atomic bomb exploding, followed by jolting and shaking, bringing walls and ceilings crashing down on them. It had been raining the night of the earthquake, so all the people and their animals had been indoors, sleeping.

Barmal lost around 500 people that night and thousands were injured.

People were shouting for help from the neighbouring villages, but no one came. In the light of the morning, they realised why no one had come to their aid. All the surrounding villages had been destroyed too.

“The destruction was total.”

“We were shouting for help, but there was no one around,” remembers Shazmina*, a 30-year-old woman whose husband was killed in the earthquake. “By the morning, some people from Urgun came to help us rescue people from under the rubble. We didn’t even have scarves to cover the dead bodies. All the houses were destroyed here. We thought at first that it was only this village, but it was everywhere, the destruction was total.”

In the following days, help from the outside came, bringing food, blankets, and tents.

Able to stay at home

The death and destruction caused by the earthquake in Barmal was so widespread that many decided their only option was to leave their ancestral homes. But the speed with which the initial assistance arrived, and the commitment to help re-build, has given hope that they can continue to live in their villages.

“We lost everything we had in the earthquake,” says Ghazimarjan, 35. “We decided to leave our area and move to another place as we had nothing. But the humanitarian organisations arrived and supported us. The NGOs gave us the hope that we’ll be able to stay at home. Because of their support, our economic situation will improve.”

In the past, the communities here were not able to accept outside assistance. There were stories of threats to destroy clinics if they were built, rejections of offers to tarmac roads and a general suspicion of the intentions of outside help. Some members of the community say that they felt accepting assistance would indicate affiliation to one group or another in the conflict, an act which could have brought harm to them in moments of extreme tension and violence.

But the solidarity shown to those impacted by the earthquake has had a profound impact on the outlook of the communities here. Now, they are asking for clinics, schools, roads, official ID cards and telecommunications infrastructure. They are even accepting official ID cards for women, something that would have been unthinkable in such a conservative culture before, as it requires the women to be photographed. The communities here have even requested for more female humanitarian and medical staff from outside to ensure their women can access assistance.

“There is a person from the government who comes to us now to issue IDs for us women and our children,” says Shazmina. “Before it was only men who had these documents, now women have them too. No one really used to pay attention to this area, but the earthquake has changed things. Now there are women coming and speaking with us about what we need. I hope the future will be brighter for our children. It’s too late for us, but perhaps this earthquake can help our children have opportunities that we never had.”

“Before it was only men who had these documents, now women have them too.”

The Giving Hope For Them (GHFT) provided over a thousand families with cash in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Since then, we have been rebuilding homes and providing support for the forthcoming winter and providing legal advice and assistance to help people claim and keep their rights. To support longer-term recovery, we are constructing greenhouses, distributing agricultural seeds, rebuilding community WASH infrastructure, vaccinating livestock against disease, and providing families with goats and chickens. This has all been possible thanks to the timely support of our donors: ECHO, FCDO, NMFA and Sida.

The race is on

Several months on since the initial disaster, the race is on to finish rebuilding homes and to ensure families have a source of income to get them through the cold winter. Many people are still living in tents next to their destroyed homes as contractors are struggling to deliver materials and labour to these remote mountainous areas. Once the winter months set in, construction work will become impossible, and the villages here will become hard to access from the outside world again until the spring.

“We have nothing now and we need everything, particularly for winter when the needs are higher in general,” says Karmin Ullah, a local resident. “Things like solar power, stoves, blankets, shelter, food – these are all things we lost in the earthquake and need now to survive the winter. We’re still living in tents for now, until the new houses are built, and the tents can sometimes leak. They aren’t very strong against the cold. The roads are also very bad in the winter; when there is rain or snow the roads can be completely cut off.”

There are many areas across Afghanistan that, like Barmal, have been isolated for years from outside support due to conflict. For the first time in decades, these areas are open and accessible for humanitarians. So, despite the destruction, the earthquake has shown us that there is some hope for the future. If the humanitarian responders are able to promote disaster preparedness and provide assistance quickly after the onset of an emergency, it may be possible to limit disaster related displacement in the country.

In the long run, economic stability, development assistance and investment in core infrastructure will also enable disaster affected communities to stay and thrive in their homes and to reduce their vulnerability to natural disasters.

GHFT continues to call for longer term development assistance to be re-established, for international actors to address the harmful impacts of the economic restrictions placed on the country and for flexible multipurpose emergency funding to enable effective and timely emergency responses.

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