Survivors dig by hand after quake in Afghanistan kills 1,000

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GAYAN, Afghanistan – Survivors excavated by hand Thursday in villages in eastern Afghanistan reduced to rubble by a massive earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people, as the Taliban and the international community that fled their invasion struggled to help victims of the disaster.

In the hard-hit Gayan district of Paktika province, villagers lay on top of mud bricks that were once a home there. Others walked carefully down dirt alleys, clinging to the battered walls with exposed wooden beams to make way.

The quake was the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades, and officials said the number could rise. An estimated 1,500 other people were injured, the state news agency said.

The disaster inflicted by the magnitude 6 earthquake adds to the misery in a country where millions face increasing hunger and poverty and the health care system has been crumbling since the Taliban regained power nearly 10 months ago amid US and NATO withdrawals. The takeover led to a cut of vital international funding, and most of the world shunned the Taliban government.

How – and whether the Taliban allows – the world to offer aid remains in question, as rescuers without heavy equipment have dug up rubble with their bare hands.

“We ask the Islamic Emirate and the entire country to help us,” said one survivor who identified himself as Hakimullah. “We have nothing and we have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”

The full extent of the destruction among the villages hidden in the mountains was slow to come to light. The roads, which are potholed and difficult to travel under the best of circumstances, may have been seriously damaged, and landslides from recent rains have made access even more difficult. At least 11 people died in the recent floods as well.

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

Rescue teams arrived by helicopter, but the relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last August. Furthermore, most governments are afraid to deal directly with the Taliban.

In a sign of the mixed work between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban has not formally requested that the UN mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent by Afghan authorities. , said Ramiz Alakbarov, UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.

Still, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight truckloads of food and other necessities from Pakistan arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two humanitarian aid planes from Iran and one from Qatar had arrived in the country.

Getting more direct international aid can be more difficult: Many countries, including the US, channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other organizations to avoid putting money into the hands of the Taliban.

In a news bulletin on Thursday, Afghanistan’s state television made a point of acknowledging that US President Joe Biden – his former enemy – offered condolences for the earthquake and promised help. Biden on Wednesday ordered “USAID and other federal government partners to evaluate US response options to help those most affected,” a White House statement said.

The quake was centered in Paktika province, about 50 kilometers southwest of the city of Khost, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department. Experts put its depth at just 10 kilometers (6 miles). Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.

The death toll reported by the Bakhtar news agency was equal to that of a 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. These are the deadliest since 1998, when a magnitude 6.1 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

Wednesday’s quake hit a landslide-prone region with many older and weaker buildings.

In Speray district, in neighboring Khost province, which also suffered serious damage, men were on top of what was once a mud house. The earthquake had ripped through its wooden beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made from a blanket that blew in the breeze.

Survivors quickly prepared the district’s dead, including children and a baby, for burial. Authorities fear more dead will be found in the coming days.

“It is difficult to gather all the exact information because it is a mountainous area,” said Sultan Mahmood, head of the Speray district. “The information we have is what we collect from the residents of these areas.”

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, UAE, and Rahim Faiez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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