GAYAN, Afghanistan – Villagers rushed to bury the dead on Thursday and dug by hand through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors of a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan who, according to the official media, killed 1,000 people. Residents appeared to be largely alone to deal with the aftermath as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggled to deliver aid.
Under overcast skies in Paktika province, the epicenter of Wednesday’s earthquake where hundreds of homes were destroyed, men dug several long trenches on the mountainside overlooking their village. They prayed over a hundred bodies wrapped in blankets and then buried them.
In villages in Gayan district visited by Associated Press reporters for hours on Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night out in the open lifted pieces of wood from collapsed roofs and removed rocks from hand, in search of their missing loved ones. Taliban fighters were driving around in vehicles in the area, but only a few were seen helping to dig up the rubble.
There were few signs of heavy equipment – only one bulldozer was spotted being hauled. Ambulances were circulating, but little other help for the living was evident.
Many international aid agencies pulled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took over almost 10 months ago. Those left scramble to get medical supplies, food and tents to the remote quake-hit area, using poor quality mountain roads made worse by damage and rains.
“We ask the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come and help us,” said a survivor who went by the name of Hakimullah. “We are without anything and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”
The scenes highlighted how the magnitude 6 earthquake hit a country that was already nearly on its knees from multiple humanitarian crises.
The quake claimed the lives of 1,000 people, according to the state-run Bakhtar news agency, which also reported that around 1,500 other people were injured. In the first independent tally, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said around 770 people had been killed in Paktika and neighboring Khost province.
It is unclear how the totals were obtained, given the difficulties of access and communication with the affected villages. Either grim toll would make Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in two decades, and officials have continued to warn the number could rise further.
Since the Taliban took power in August amid the withdrawal of the United States and NATO, the world has withdrawn the funding and development aid that kept the country afloat. The economy collapsed, leaving millions of people unable to feed themselves; many medical facilities have closed, making treatment harder to find. Nearly half of the population of 38 million people face critical levels of food insecurity.
Many aid and development agencies also left after the Taliban took power. The UN and other agencies said they were transporting blankets, food, tents and medical teams to the area.
But they are overstretched and UN agencies face a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year. That means there will be tough decisions about who gets the aid, said Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency.
Local medical centers, which were already struggling to deal with cases of malnutrition, were now overwhelmed with people injured by the quake, said Adnan Junaid, vice president of the International Rescue Committee for Asia.
“The toll this disaster will have on local communities… is catastrophic, and the impact the earthquake will have on the already strained humanitarian response in Afghanistan is a serious cause for concern,” Junaid said.
The Defense Ministry, which is leading the Taliban’s emergency effort, said it sent 22 helicopter flights Wednesday carrying wounded and carrying supplies, along with several more on Thursday.
Yet Taliban resources have been drained by the economic crisis. Made up of insurgents who fought for 20 years against the United States and NATO, the Taliban also struggled to transition into government.
On Wednesday, a UN official said the government had not asked the global body to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries, despite a rare appeal from the supreme leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, to the aid of the world.
Trucks of food and other essentials arrived from Pakistan, and planes full of humanitarian aid landed from Iran and Qatar, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter.
Obtaining more direct international assistance may be more difficult: many countries, including the United States, channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban, who fear dealing with the group, which has launched a wave of repressive edicts restricting the rights of women and girls and the press.
Germany, Norway and several other countries announced they were sending aid for the earthquake, but stressed that they would only work through UN agencies, not 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.
UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov told the UN Security Council in a video conference that he intended to visit quake-affected areas on Friday and ” to meet affected families, first-hand responders, including women’s civil society groups working to ensure that aid reaches women and girls, and to support relief efforts as a whole.
In the province of Paktika, the earthquake shook a region of great poverty, where the inhabitants live in the few fertile areas among the steep mountains. The roads are so rough that some villages in Gayan district took an entire day to reach Kabul, despite being only 175 kilometers (110 miles) away.
A 6-year-old boy in Gayan cried as he said his parents, two sisters and brother were all dead. He had fled the ruins of his own house and taken refuge with the neighbours.
While modern buildings elsewhere withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes, mud-brick houses and landslide-prone mountains in Afghanistan make such quakes more dangerous.
One man, Rahim Jan, stood inside the few mudbrick walls of his house with the roof beams knocked down all around him.
“It’s completely destroyed, all my stuff is gone,” he said. “I lost 12 members of my family in this house.”
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lee Keath in Cairo, and Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.