Desperate rescuers battled against the clock and heavy rain Thursday to reach cut-off areas in eastern Afghanistan after a powerful earthquake killed at least 1,000 people and left thousands more homeless.
Wednesday’s 5.9-magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged east, downing mobile phone towers and power lines while triggering rock and mudslides which blocked mountain roads.
Entire villages have been levelled in some of the worst affected districts, where survivors said they were struggling to find equipment to bury their dead.
“When I came out of my house it was quiet because all the people were buried under their homes. Nothing is left here,” said 21-year-old Zaitullah Ghurziwal.
The disaster poses a huge logistical challenge for Afghanistan’s new Taliban government, which has isolated itself from much of the world by introducing hardline Islamist rule that subjugates women and girls.
“Getting information from the ground is very difficult because of bad networks,” Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of information for badly hit Paktika province, told AFP Thursday.
“The area has been affected by floods because of heavy rains last night… it is also difficult to access the affected sites.”
The aid-dependent country saw the bulk of its foreign assistance cut off in the wake of the Taliban takeover last August, and even before the earthquake the United Nations warned of a humanitarian crisis that threatened the entire population.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the global agency has “fully mobilised” to help, deploying health teams and supplies of medicine, food, trauma kits and emergency shelter to the quake zone.
‘Like a tsunami’
Survivors in Bermal district, a collection of remote mountain villages, said they were struggling to find equipment to dig graves.
“We did not have even a shovel to dig… so we used a tractor. We buried 60 people yesterday and 30 more are still remaining to be buried. People are working continuously,” said Ghurziwal.
“There are no blankets, tents, there’s no shelter. Our entire water distribution system is destroyed. Everything is devastated, houses are destroyed. There is literally nothing to eat.”
Afghan government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted Thursday that aid flights had landed from Qatar and Iran, while Pakistan had sent trucks carrying tents, medical supplies and food across the land border.
The earthquake struck areas that were already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that wiped out hamlets perched precariously on mountain slopes.
The UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told reporters nearly 2,000 homes were likely destroyed – a huge number in an area where the average household size is more than 20 people.
“Seven in one room, five in the other room, four in another, and three in another have been killed in my family,” Bibi Hawa told AFP from a hospital bed in the Paktika capital.
“I can’t talk any more, my heart is getting weak.”
The healthcare system in Afghanistan was already on the verge of collapse.
“Our country is poor and lacks resources,” said hospital director Mohammad Yahya Wiar. “This is a humanitarian crisis. It is like a tsunami.”
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently strike the country.
But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since they returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited.
“The government is working within its capabilities,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official.
“We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation.”
The United States, whose troops helped topple the initial Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan for two decades until Washington pulled them out last year, was “deeply saddened” by the earthquake, the White House said.
“President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID (US Agency for International Development) and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Prayers for victims
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Scores of people were killed in January when two quakes struck the western province of Badghis.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries.
Afghanistan’s deadliest recent earthquake killed 5,000 in May 1998 in the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis offered prayers for victims of the latest quake.
“I express my closeness with the injured and those who were affected,” the 85-year-old pontiff said concluding his weekly audience.