Afghans bury dead, dig for survivors of devastating quake


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. Residents appeared to be largely on their own to deal with the aftermath as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggled to bring in help.

Under a leaden sky in Paktika province, the epicenter of Wednesday’s earthquake where hundreds of homes have been destroyed, men dug several long trenches on a mountainside overlooking their village. They prayed over around 100 bodies wrapped in blankets and then buried them.

In villages across Gayan district, toured by Associated Press journalists for hours Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night out in the open lifted pieces of timber of collapsed roofs and pulled away stones by hand, looking for missing loved ones. Taliban fighters circulated in vehicles in the area, but only a few were seen helping dig through rubble.

There was little sign of heavy equipment — only one bulldozer was spotted being transported. Ambulances circulated, but little other help to the living was evident.

Many international aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power nearly 10 months ago. Those that remain are scrambling to get medical supplies, food and tents to the remote quake-struck area, using shoddy mountain roads made worse by damage and rains.

“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.”

The scenes underscored how the magnitude 6 quake has struck a country that was already nearly on its knees from multiple humanitarian crises.

The quake took the lives of 1,000 people, according to the state-run Bakhtar News Agency, which also reported 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. Either grim toll would make the quake Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials continued to warn the number could still rise.

Since the Taliban took over in August amid the U.S and NATO withdrawal, the world pulled back financing and development aid that had been keeping the country afloat. The economy collapsed, leaving millions unable to afford food; many medical facilities shut down, making treatment harder to find. Nearly half the population of 38 million faces crisis levels of food insecurity.

Many aid and development agencies also left after the Taliban seizure of power. The U.N. and remaining agencies said they were moving blankets, food, tents, and medical teams to the area.

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

Local medical centers, already struggling to deal with malnutrition cases, were now overwhelmed with people injured by the quake, said Adnan Junaid, the International Rescue Committee vice president for Asia.

“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,” Junaid said.

The Defense Ministry, which leads the Taliban emergency effort, said it sent 22 helicopter flights on Wednesday transporting wounded and taking supplies, along with several more Thursday.

Still, the Taliban’s resources have been gutted by the economic crisis. Made up of insurgents who fought for 20 years against the U.S. and NATO, the Taliban have also struggled to make the transition to governing.

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.