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.
“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, adding there was no immediate update to the death toll.
“The area has been affected by floods because of heavy rains last night… it is also difficult to access the affected sites.”
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.
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’ –
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.”
Hospital director Mohammad Yahya Wiar said they were doing their best to treat everyone.
“Our country is poor and lacks resources,” he told AFP. “This is a humanitarian crisis. It is like a tsunami.”
– Trench graves –
Footage released by the Taliban showed people in one village digging a long trench to bury the dead, who by Islamic tradition must be laid to rest facing Mecca.
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.”
– Offers of help –
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.
The European Union was also quick to offer assistance.
Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: “The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected.”
– 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.
Heartbreak and shock at Afghan quake hospital
Sharan, Afghanistan (AFP) June 22, 2022 – Bibi Hawa’s face is distorted by tears as she tries to grasp her predicament from a hospital bed in Sharan, capital of Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
At least a dozen members of her family were among over 1,000 people killed by a devastating earthquake that struck the region early Wednesday, and she fears she has been left all alone.
“Where will I go, where will I go?” the 55-year-old asks repeatedly.
As a nurse tries to calm her down, talking to her gently and caressing her forehead, Bibi sighs: “My heart is weak.”
The 5.9-magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged and impoverished east, where people already led hand-to-mouth lives made worse since the Taliban takeover in August.
The disaster poses a huge challenge for the hardline Islamists, who have largely isolated the country as a result of their hardline policies.
The United Nations in an initial estimate said over 2,000 homes were destroyed in the region, where the average family often has up to 20 members.
In the room where Bibi is being treated a dozen other women lie on beds — many asleep, some burrowed beneath blankets, others hooked up to vital fluids.
Shahmira is unhurt, but her one-year-old grandson lies in her lap, a large dressing covering his temple.
On the next bed her daughter-in-law is sleeping off her injuries, while a son is being treated in a different ward.
“We were sleeping when we heard a loud noise,” she tells AFP of the quake.
“I screamed… I thought my family was buried under the rubble and that I was the only one” still alive.
– Cries everywhere –
In an adjacent ward, a dozen men are also recovering on beds.
One father holds his son on his lap — the boy wearing mustard-coloured pants with little black hearts, one leg in a plaster cast.
Nearby another child lies under a blue blanket. His left arm is also in a cast, while on his forehead a white bandage bears the word “emergency” written in black marker.
“It was a horrible situation,” recalls Arup Khan, 22, talking of the moments after the quake.
“There were cries everywhere. The children and my family were under the mud.”
Mohammad Yahya Wiar, director of Sharan Hospital, says they have been doing their best to treat everyone.
When the injured arrived, they “were crying, and we were crying too”, he tells AFP.
“Our country is poor and lacks resources. This is a humanitarian crisis. It is like a tsunami.”
But locals are rallying to help. In front of the hospital, a hundred men are waiting patiently.
“They have come to give blood — about 300 have already given it since this morning,” explains a Taliban fighter.
Afghanistan’s deadliest quakes
Paris (AFP) June 22, 2022 – The earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan and injured hundreds more is the deadliest in the country in nearly a quarter of a century.
Here is an overview of other recent quakes in one of the world’s poorest countries.
– 1991: 1,500 dead in Afghanistan and Pakistan –
On February 1, 1991, a magnitude 6.9 quake rocks Afghanistan and the north-east of neighbouring Pakistan.
The tremors are also felt in northern India and Tajikistan.
At least 1,500 people are killed, according to Afghan authorities.
– 1998: Two quakes kill thousands –
In 1998, the country is rocked by two major quakes.
The first on February 4, 1998, is centred on the north-eastern province of Takhar, where around 4,500 people are killed and thousands left homeless. The quake has a magnitude of 5.9, according to the US Geological Survey.
The second, magnitude 6.6, also hits Takhar, along with the far north-eastern province of Badakhshan on May 30. It leaves around 5,000 people dead, 1,500 wounded and destroys several villages.
– 2002: Hundreds dead in Hindu Kush foothills –
On March 3, 2020, a powerful magnitude 7.4 quake hits the north of the country, killing between 70 and 150 people in Samangan province.
On March 25, a smaller quake kills over 800 people and leaves thousands homeless in Baghlan province in the foothills of the Hindu Kush range. The town of Nahrin, which had a population of 20,000 people, is completely destroyed.
– 2012: Dozens buried in landslide –
On June 11, 2012, three quakes ranging in magnitude from 5.2 to 5.7 leave 75 dead and destroy scores of homes in Baghlan province. All but four of the dead are in the village of Mullah Jan which is buried by a landslide.
– 2015: Biggest quake kills hundreds –
On October 26, 2015, the biggest quake in decades with a magnitude of 7.5 rocks the Hindu Kush range, which straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At least 380 people are killed in the two countries.