Afghans bury dead, dig for survivors of devastating earthquake

Damage caused by Afghan earthquake
Afghans stand among destruction Thursday after an earthquake in Gayan village, in Paktika province.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Nooroozi

By EBRAHIM NOROOZI Associated Press

GAYAN, Afghanistan — Villagers rushed to bury the dead Thursday and dug by hand through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors of a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that state media reported killed 1,000 people. The Taliban and the international community that fled their takeover struggled to bring help to the disaster’s victims.

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

The state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported the death toll and said an estimated 1,500 more were injured. In the first independent count, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said around 770 people had been killed in Paktika and neighboring Khost province.

It’s not clear how the totals were arrived at, given the difficulties of accessing and communicating with the affected villages tucked into remote mountainsides. Either grim till would make the quake Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials continued to warn the number could still rise.

“They don’t have anything to eat, they are wondering what they can have to eat, and it is also raining,” a Bakhtar reporter said in footage from the quake zone. “Their houses are destroyed. Please help them, don’t leave them alone.”

The disaster heaps more misery on a country where millions already faced increasing hunger and poverty and the health system has crumbled since the Taliban retook power nearly 10 months ago amid the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.

How the international humanitarian community, which has pulled back significant resources from the country, will be able to offer aid and to what extent the Taliban government will allow it to remain in question. The Taliban’s takeover led to a cutoff of vital international financing, and most governments remain wary of dealing directly with them.

U.N. 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 appeared immense as whole villages sustained massive damage.

“We ask from the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who gave his name as Hakimullah. “We are with nothing and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”

Search and rescue remained a priority. In hard-hit Gayan District, much of the rubble was too large for people to move with their hands or shovels. They said they hoped large excavators would make it out their remote homes. For now, there was only one bulldozer in the area.

On Wednesday, a U.N. official said the government had not requested that the world body mobilize international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries, despite a rare plea from the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, for help from the world.

U.N. agencies are facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year, and Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, said that means there will be difficult decisions about who gets aid.

In addition to the political and financial concerns, there were also logistical challenges to getting aid to remote villages. The roads, which are rutted and difficult to travel in the best of circumstances, may have been badly damaged in the quake, and landslides from recent rains have made some impassible. Though just 110 miles directly south of the capital, Kabul, some villages in Gayan District took a full day’s drive to reach.

Rescuers rushed in by helicopter — and Associated Press journalists also saw ambulances in the quake zone on Thursday — but heavier equipment will be difficult to deliver.

Walls and roofs of dozens of homes in Gayan collapsed in the quake, and villagers said whole families were buried under the rubble. Associated Press journalists counted some 50 bodies in the area alone, as people laid out their dead in front of their houses and in their courtyards.

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

Despite the challenges, officials from several U.N. agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.

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

Obtaining more direct international help may be more difficult: Many countries, including the U.S., funnel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the U.N. and other such organizations to avoid putting money in the Taliban’s hands.

In a news bulletin Thursday, Afghanistan state television made a point to acknowledge that U.S. President Joe Biden — their one-time enemy — offered condolences over the earthquake and had promised aid. Biden on Wednesday ordered the U.S. international aid agency and its partners to “assess” options for helping the victims, a White House statement said.

The death toll reported by Bakhtar was equal to that of a quake in 2002 in northern Afghanistan — the deadliest since 1998, when a 6.1 magnitude temblor and subsequent tremors in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

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

In Khost province’s Speray district, which also sustained serious damage, men stood atop what once was a mud home. The quake had ripped open its timber beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made of a blanket that blew in the breeze.

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

“The toll this disaster will have on the local communities … is catastrophic, and the impact the earthquake will have on the already stretched humanitarian response in Afghanistan is a grave cause for concern,” said Adnan Junaid, vice president for Asia for the International Rescue Committee. “The areas most affected are some of the poorest and most remote areas in Afghanistan, which lack the infrastructure to withstand disasters like this.”