Afghans bury the dead and dig for survivors after earthquake that killed 1,000

Villagers rushed to bury the dead on Thursday and dug through the rubble of their homes by hand in search of survivors of a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that killed at least 1,000 people. The Taliban and the international community who fled their takeover struggled to come to the aid of the victims of the disaster.

Under overcast skies in Paktika province, which was the epicenter of Wednesday’s magnitude 6 earthquake, men dug a line of graves in a village as they tried to quickly lay the dead to rest in accordance to the Muslim tradition. In a courtyard, bodies lay wrapped in plastic to protect them from rains that are hampering relief efforts for the living.

The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. Around 1,500 other people were reportedly injured, the state-run Bakhtar news agency said.

“They have nothing to eat, they are wondering what they can have to eat, and it is also raining,” a journalist from Bakhtar said in footage from the quake area. “Their homes are destroyed. Please help them, don’t leave them alone.

The disaster is adding to the misery of a country where millions of people were already facing increasing hunger and poverty and where the health system has collapsed since the Taliban regained power there. nearly 10 months amid US and NATO withdrawal. The takeover cut off vital international funding, and most of the world shunned the Taliban government.

How the international humanitarian community, which has withdrawn significant resources from the country, will be able to offer assistance and whether the Taliban government will allow that remains in question. In a rare move, Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzadah pleaded for the world’s help on Wednesday – but a UN official said the government had not asked the world body to mobilize teams international search and rescue services or to obtain equipment from neighboring countries.

“We are asking the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come and help us,” said a survivor who went by the name Hakimullah. “We are without anything and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”

The extent of the destruction among the villages nestled in the mountains was slow to become apparent. Roads, which are rutted and difficult to navigate at the best of times, may have been badly damaged by the earthquake, and landslides caused by recent rains have made some impassable. Although only 175 kilometers (110 miles) directly south of the capital, Kabul, some villages in the hard-hit Gayan district took a full day’s drive to reach.

The walls and roofs of dozens of homes in the neighborhood collapsed in the quake, and villagers said entire families were buried under the rubble. Associated Press reporters counted around 50 bodies in the area alone, as people laid their dead in front of their homes and in their yards.

Much of the rubble was too big for people to move with their hands or shovels. They said they hoped big diggers would come out of their distant homes. So far, there was only one bulldozer in the area.

While modern buildings elsewhere withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes, mud-brick houses and landslide-prone mountains in Afghanistan make such quakes more dangerous. Shallow quakes also tend to cause more damage, and experts put Wednesday’s depth at just 10 kilometers (6 miles).

Rescuers rushed by helicopter – and AP reporters also saw ambulances in the quake area on Thursday – but the wider relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August. Moreover, most governments are reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban.

Still, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight truckloads of food and other essentials from Pakistan have arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two humanitarian aid planes from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.

Obtaining more direct international assistance can be more difficult: many countries, including the United States, channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other similar organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban.

In a news report on Thursday, Afghan state television made a point of acknowledging that US President Joe Biden – their former enemy – offered his condolences for the earthquake and promised help. Biden on Wednesday ordered the U.S. international aid agency and its partners to “evaluate” options to help the victims, according to a statement from the White House.

The death toll reported by Bakhtar was equal to that of a 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. They are the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake also measuring 6.1 and subsequent tremors in the far northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

Wednesday’s quake was centered in Paktika province, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the city of Khost, according to the nearby Pakistan Meteorological Department.

In Speray district in neighboring Khost province, which also suffered severe damage, men stood on top of what was once an earthen house. The earthquake had torn its wooden beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made of a blanket blowing in the breeze.

Survivors quickly prepared the district’s dead, including children and a baby, for burial. Officials fear more dead will be found in the coming days.

“It is difficult to gather all the exact information because it is a mountainous region,” said Sultan Mahmood, head of the Speray district. “The information we have is what we have collected from people in these areas.”


Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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