GAYAN, Afghanistan (AP) — Villagers rushed to bury the dead on Thursday and manually dug through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors after a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that killed 1,000 people, according to state media. The Taliban and the international community, fleeing the takeover, struggled to help the victims of the disaster.
Under lead skies in Paktika province, which was the epicenter of Wednesday’s magnitude 6 earthquake, men dug a series 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 state-run Bakhtar news agency reported the death toll and reported that about 1,500 more were injured. In the first independent count, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that about 770 people were killed in Paktika and neighboring Khost province.
It is not clear how the overall data was obtained, given the difficulty of accessing and communicating with the affected villages hidden in the remote mountain slopes. Either a grim accident will make the earthquake the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades, and officials continue to warn that the number of earthquakes could increase.
“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.”
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.
How the international humanitarian community, which has withdrawn significant resources from the country, can offer assistance, and to what extent the Taliban government will allow it, is questionable. The takeover by the Taliban has cut off vital international funding, and most governments remain wary of dealing directly with them.
UN agencies and other organizations still operating in Afghanistan said they sent supplies to the area, including medical kits, tents and plastic tarps, but the needs proved overwhelming as entire villages suffered massive damage.
“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 are with nothing and we have nothing, not even tents to live in.”
Search and rescue operations remained a priority. In the heavily damaged Gayan region, much of the rubble was too large for people to move with their hands or shovels. They said they hope the big excavators get out of their remote homes. At the moment, there was only one bulldozer in the area.
On Wednesday, 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, despite Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada’s rare plea for peace help.
UN agencies are facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year, and Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said that means decisions about who gets aid will be difficult.
In addition to political and financial problems, there were also logistical problems in getting aid to remote villages. 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 (110 mi) directly south of the capital, Kabul, some villages in the Gayan region could be reached in a full day’s drive.
Rescuers rushed in by helicopter – and the Associated Press also saw ambulances in the quake area on Thursday – but the heavier equipment will be difficult to deliver.
The walls and roofs of dozens of houses in Gayane 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 houses and yards.
While modern buildings can withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes elsewhere, mudbrick houses in Afghanistan 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 (6 miles) deep.
Despite the problems, 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, the deadliest since 1998, when a magnitude 6.1 quake and subsequent aftershocks in the far 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.
In the Sperei area of Khost province, which also suffered severe 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.
“The damage this disaster will cause to the local population … is catastrophic, and the impact of the earthquake on the already strained humanitarian response in Afghanistan is of great concern,” said Adnan Junaid, vice president of International Rescue Asia. Committee. “The hardest hit areas are some of the poorest and most remote areas in Afghanistan that lack the infrastructure to withstand such disasters.”
Associated Press contributors John Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Raheem Fayez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.