Afghanistan earthquake: villagers search for survivors, at least 1,000 dead

Villagers rushed to bury the dead on Thursday and manually dug through the ruins of their houses in search of survivors after a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that killed at least 1,000 people. The Taliban and the international community, fleeing the takeover, struggled to help the victims of the disaster.

Under leaden skies in Paktika province, which was the epicenter of a magnitude six earthquake on Wednesday, men dug a row of graves in a village in an attempt to quickly bury the dead in accordance with Muslim tradition. In one yard, bodies were lying wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rain, which interferes with helping the living.

The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. About 1,500 people were injured, according to the state news agency Bakhtar.

“They have nothing to eat, they wonder what they have, and it’s also raining,” a Bakhtar reporter said in footage from the quake area. “Their houses have been destroyed. Please help them, don’t leave them alone.”

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The catastrophe brings even more suffering to a country where millions of people already face growing hunger and poverty, and the healthcare system has collapsed since the Taliban took power back almost 10 months ago amid the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. The takeover has cut off vital international funding, and much of the world is shunned by the Taliban government.

How the international humanitarian community, which has withdrawn significant resources from the country, can offer assistance, and whether the Taliban government will allow it, is questionable.

On Wednesday, Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzadeh did the rare act of asking the world for help, but a UN official said the government had not asked the world body to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries.

“We are asking the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who identified himself as Hakimullah. “We don’t have anything with anything, not even a tent to live in.”

The full extent of the destruction among the villages hidden in the mountains was slowly being revealed. Roads that are difficult to travel under even the best of circumstances could be badly damaged by the earthquake, and landslides from recent rains have made some of them impassable. Although only 175 kilometers south of the capital Kabul, some villages in the hard-hit Gayan region could be reached in a whole day.

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The walls and roofs of dozens of houses in the area collapsed in the earthquake, and villagers say entire families were buried under the rubble. The Associated Press reporters counted about 50 bodies in the area alone, as people laid their dead out in front of their homes and yards.

Much of the rubble was too large for people to move with their hands or shovels. They said they hope the big excavators will get out of their remote homes. At the moment, there was only one bulldozer in the area.

While modern buildings elsewhere can withstand magnitude six earthquakes, Afghan mud-brick houses and landslide-prone mountains make such earthquakes more dangerous. Shallow quakes also tend to cause more damage, with experts estimating Wednesday’s quake as only 10 kilometers deep.

Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, and AP journalists also saw ambulances in the quake zone on Thursday, but a larger relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power last August. Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.

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However, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban had given them full access to the area.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted that eight truckloads of food and other essentials from Pakistan had arrived in Paktika. On Thursday, he also said that two planes carrying humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.

Getting more direct international assistance can be more difficult: many countries, including the US, funnel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other similar organizations to avoid putting money into the hands of the Taliban.

In a news release on Thursday, Afghan state television highlighted that US President Joe Biden — their former enemy — offered condolences over the earthquake and promised help. Biden on Wednesday ordered the U.S. international aid agency and its partners to “evaluate” options for helping victims, the White House said in a statement.

The death toll reported by Bakhtar was equal to that of the 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. These are the deadliest events since 1998, when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

According to the meteorological department of neighboring Pakistan, the earthquake on Wednesday was in the province of Paktika, about 50 km southwest of the city of Khost.

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In the Sperey region of neighboring Khost province, which also suffered heavy damage, men stood on the roof of a former adobe house. The earthquake tore apart its wooden beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made from a blanket blown in the wind.

The survivors quickly prepared the dead residents of the area, including children and an infant, for burial. Officials fear more dead will be found in the coming days.

“It is difficult to collect all the accurate information because it is a mountainous area,” said Sultan Mahmud, head of the Sperai district. “The information we have is what we have received from the residents of these areas.”

© 2022 Canadian Press

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