GAYAN, Afghanistan ( Associated Press) – The death toll from the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan continued to rise days after brick and stone houses were reduced to rubble, killing 1,150 people and injuring dozens, according to the latest figures released by state media on Friday.
The country of 38 million people was already in the midst of a growing economic crisis that had plunged millions into deep poverty and more than a million children at risk of severe malnutrition..
Wednesday’s magnitude 6 quake, which struck while people were sleeping, left thousands homeless and drew attention to the country’s growing needs. Afghanistan remains cut off from the international monetary system, and aid groups have lamented having to pay local staff in bags of hand-delivered cash as countries refuse to deal directly with the Taliban.
Relief organizations such as the local Red Crescent and the World Food Program intervened to help the most vulnerable families with food and other urgent needs such as tents and sleeping mats in Paktika province, the epicenter of the earthquake, and neighboring Khost province.
However, the residents appear to have largely dealt with the fallout themselves as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggle to provide assistance. Dilapidated mountain roads leading to the affected areas have deteriorated due to damage and rain. The villagers buried their dead and dug through the rubble. manually in search of survivors.
Taliban director of the state news agency Bakhtar said on Friday that the death toll had risen to 1,150 from previous reports of 1,000 killed. Abdul Wahid Rayyan said at least 1,600 people were injured.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs puts the death toll at 770.
It is not clear how the death toll count is achieved, given the difficulty of accessing and communicating with the affected villages. Any one of these horrific casualties would make an earthquake in Afghanistan the deadliest in two decades.
State media reported that about 3,000 houses were destroyed or severely damaged. In the Gayan region, the earthquake damaged at least 1,000 houses. Another 800 houses were damaged in the Spera district of the Khost region.
While modern buildings can withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes elsewhere, mudbrick houses in Afghanistan and landslide-prone mountains make such earthquakes more dangerous.
The roads in the area are so poorly paved and difficult to navigate that some villages in the Gayan region can be reached in a full day from Kabul, although it is only 175 kilometers (110 mi) away.
In villages across the Gayane region visited for hours by the Associated Press on Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night outdoors were lifting pieces of logs from collapsed roofs and manually hauling out rocks in search of missing loved ones. Taliban fighters moved through the area in vehicles, but only a few people were seen helping to dig the rubble.
There were few signs of heavy equipment – only one bulldozer was seen. Ambulances drove by, but there was no other help for the living. One 6-year-old boy in Gayane was crying, saying that his parents, two sisters and brother were dead. He escaped from the ruins of his own house and took refuge with his neighbors.
Many international aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over last August. Those who remain are trying to deliver medical supplies, food and tents to remote earthquake-hit areas. UN agencies are also facing a $3 billion funding shortfall. for Afghanistan this year.
Germany, Norway and a number of other countries have announced they are sending earthquake aid, but stressed that they will only work through UN agencies and not with the Taliban, who have not yet been officially recognized by any government. Countries have urged the Taliban to prioritize human rights issues, chief among which are the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls.
The International Rescue Committee has emergency medical teams in two provinces to provide first aid and said it is providing cash assistance to families who have lost their homes and livelihoods in the earthquake. The organization, which has been active in Afghanistan since 1988, is calling for the development of an international roadmap for the eventual release of 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, preventing the new rulers from paying civil servants and importing goods.
Trucks loaded with food and other essentials arrived from Pakistan, while humanitarian aid planes landed from Iran and Qatar. India Humanitarian Aid and Technical Team to the capital Kabul to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid. India says its assistance will be shared with the UN agency on the ground and the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
In the province of Paktika, an earthquake has shaken a region of deep poverty where residents barely make ends meet in a few fertile areas amid rugged mountains.
There are predictions cited by the UN and others that poverty could rise to 97% of the population and unemployment to 40% this year.
Associated Press contributors Raheem Fayez of Islamabad, Pakistan and Aya Batrawi of Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.