After quake in Afghanistan, death toll rises to 1,150

GAYAN, Afghanistan — An aftershock shook a hard-hit area in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, two days after an earthquake shook the region, destroying hundreds of mud-brick homes and killing 1,150 people, according to state media.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department reported a magnitude 4.2 earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan that state news agency Bakhtar reported claimed five more lives in Gayan district and injured 11 people.

The country of 38 million people was already in the midst of a spiraling economic crisis that had plunged millions of people into poverty, with more than a million children at risk of severe malnutrition.

Wednesday’s magnitude 6 earthquake that struck overnight as people slept left thousands homeless and brought the country’s needs into focus. Afghanistan remains isolated from the international monetary system, and aid groups lament having to pay local officials with hand-delivered bags of cash as nations refuse to deal directly with the Taliban.

Aid organizations such as the local Red Crescent and the World Food Program intervened to help the most vulnerable families with food and other emergency necessities such as tents and mattresses in Paktika province, the epicenter of the earthquake, and in neighboring Khost province.

Still, residents appeared to be largely alone in dealing with the fallout, as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggle to bring in aid. The poor quality mountain roads leading to the affected areas were made worse by damage and rain. Villagers are burying their dead and digging through the rubble by hand in search of survivors.

The Taliban director of the Bakhtar agency said on Friday that the death toll had risen to 1,150 people from earlier reports of 1,000 dead. Abdul Wahid Rayan said at least 1,600 people were injured.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the death toll at 770 people.

It is unclear how the death toll is being reached, given the difficulties of access and communication with the impacted villages. Any one of the grim tolls would make the quake the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades.

State media reported that around 3,000 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged. In Gayan district, at least 1,000 homes were damaged by the earthquake. Another 800 houses in the Spera district of Khost province were also damaged.

While modern buildings withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes elsewhere, Afghanistan’s mud-brick homes and landslide-prone mountains make these earthquakes more dangerous.

The roads in the area are so poorly paved and difficult to navigate that some villages in the Gayan district take a full day to reach from Kabul, even though it is only 175 kilometers (110 miles) away.

In villages in the Gayan district visited by Associated Press journalists for hours on Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night outdoors lifted pieces of wood from collapsed roofs and lifted stones by hand, searching for missing loved ones. Taliban fighters circulated 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 a tractor was seen being transported. Ambulances circulated, but little other aid to the living was evident. A 6-year-old boy in Gayan cried as he said his parents, two sisters and a brother were all dead. He had fled the ruins of his own home and taken refuge with his neighbors.

Many international aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban took power last August. Those who remain are struggling to bring medical supplies, food and tents to the remote quake-hit area. UN agencies are also facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year.

Germany, Norway and several other countries announced that they would send earthquake relief, but stressed that they would only work through UN agencies, not the Taliban, which no government has yet officially recognized. Nations have asked the Taliban to first address human rights issues, particularly the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls.

The International Rescue Committee has emergency health teams in the two provinces to provide essential first aid and said it is providing cash support to families who lost their homes and livelihoods in the earthquake. The organization, which has operated in Afghanistan since 1988, is calling for an international roadmap to free up Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves.

The Taliban’s takeover of the country last year, as the US prepared to withdraw its troops, prompted the Biden administration to freeze some $9.5 billion the Afghan central bank has in US banks, hampering the new rulers’ efforts. to pay civil servants and import goods.

Trucks of food and other necessities arrived from Pakistan, and planes full of humanitarian aid landed from Iran and Qatar. Humanitarian aid from India and a technical team to the capital, Kabul, to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. India says its aid will be delivered to a UN agency on the ground and the Afghan Red Crescent.

In Paktika province, the earthquake shook a region of deep poverty, where residents make a living in the few fertile areas between the rugged mountains.

There are projections, cited by the UN and others, that poverty rates could reach 97% of the population and unemployment to 40% this year.

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, Pakistan and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, UAE contributed to this report.

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