Survivors dig by hand after an earthquake in Afghanistan that killed 1,000 people

Survivors have been digging by hand in villages in eastern Afghanistan left in ruins by a massive earthquake that has killed at least 1,000 people, as have the Taliban and the international community who fled the struggle to help victims of the disaster.

In the hard-hit Gayan district of Paktika province, villagers stood on the mud bricks that had once been a home. Others moved cautiously through muddy alleyways, clinging to damaged walls with exposed wooden beams to force their way through.

The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. About 1,500 people were injured, according to the state news agency.

The catastrophe caused by a magnitude six earthquake is causing even more suffering in a country where millions of people face growing hunger and poverty, and the healthcare system has been collapsing since the Taliban took power back almost 10 months ago amid the withdrawal of the US and NATO.

The takeover has cut off vital international funding, and much of the world is shunned by the Taliban government.

Close

An Afghan man sits outside his home destroyed by the earthquake in the Spera district in southwestern Khost province (AP).

How the world would offer help—and whether the Taliban would allow it—was in question as rescuers without heavy equipment dug through the rubble with their bare hands.

“We are asking the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who identified himself as Hakimullah.

“We are with nothing and we have nothing, not even tents to live in.”

The full extent of the destruction among the villages hidden in the mountains was slowly being revealed.

Roads that are difficult to travel even under the best of circumstances could be badly damaged, and landslides from recent rains have made access even more difficult.

While modern buildings elsewhere can withstand a magnitude six quake, Afghan mud-and-brick houses and landslide-prone mountains make such quakes even more dangerous.

Rescuers arrived by helicopter, but relief efforts could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid organizations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover last August.

Moreover, most governments are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban.

In a sign of the intricate work between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban have not formally asked the UN to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries in addition to a few dozen ambulances and a few helicopters. Afghan authorities, said UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Ramiz Alekperov.

Close

An Afghan girl stands near a damaged house (AP)

However, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban had given them full access to the area.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted that eight truckloads of food and other essentials from Pakistan had arrived in Paktika.

He also said on Thursday that two planes carrying humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.

More direct international assistance may be more difficult to obtain; many countries, including the United States, are sending humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other similar organizations to prevent money from falling into the hands of the Taliban.

In a news release on Thursday, Afghan state television highlighted that US President Joe Biden — their former enemy — offered condolences over the earthquake and promised help.

On Wednesday, Biden ordered “USAID and other federal government partners to evaluate U.S. response options to help those most affected,” the White House said in a statement.

According to the meteorological department of neighboring Pakistan, the earthquake was located in the province of Paktika, about 31 miles southwest of the city of Khost.

Close

Afghan villagers collect items from rubble of house (AP)

Experts estimate its depth at only six miles. Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.

The death toll, reported by the Bakhtar news agency, equaled that of the 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan.

These are the deadliest events since 1998, when a 6.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

Wednesday’s quake hit an area prone to landslides, with many old and weak buildings.

In the Sperey region of neighboring Khost province, which also suffered heavy damage, men stood on the roof of a former adobe house.

The earthquake tore apart its wooden beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made from a blanket blown in the wind.

The survivors quickly prepared the dead residents of the area, including children and an infant, for burial.

Officials fear more dead will be found in the coming days.

“It is difficult to collect all the accurate information because it is a mountainous area,” said Sultan Mahmud, head of the Sperai district.

“The information we have is what we have received from the residents of these areas.”