GAYAN, Afghanistan ( Associated Press) — Villagers rushed to bury the dead on Thursday and manually dug through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors after a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that killed 1,000 people, according to state media.. The residents appeared to have largely dealt with the aftermath themselves as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggled to provide assistance.
Under leaden skies in Paktika province, the epicenter of Wednesday’s earthquake where hundreds of homes were destroyed, men dug several long trenches on a mountainside overlooking their village. They prayed for about 100 bodies wrapped in blankets and then buried them.
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 around the area in vehicles, but few of them helped 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.
Many international aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over nearly 10 months ago. Those who remain are trying to get medical supplies, food and tents to remote earthquake-hit areas using poor mountain roads made worse by damage and rain.
“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 scenes highlighted how a magnitude 6 earthquake struck a country that was already almost on its knees due to multiple humanitarian crises..
The quake killed 1,000 people, according to the state news agency Bakhtar, which also reported that about 1,500 more were injured. In the first independent count, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that about 770 people were killed in Paktika and neighboring Khost province.
It is not clear how the totals were obtained, given the difficulty of accessing and communicating with the affected villages. Any grim loss would make the quake the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades, and officials continued to warn that the death toll could rise.
Since the Taliban seized power in August amid US and NATO troop withdrawalsthe world stopped the development funding and aid that kept the country afloat. The economy collapsed, leaving millions of people unable to afford food; many medical facilities have closed, making it difficult to find treatment. Nearly half of the world’s 38 million people face crisis levels of food insecurity.
Many aid and development agencies also left after the Taliban seized power. The UN and other agencies said they were bringing blankets, food, tents and medical teams to the area.
But they are overwhelmed, and UN agencies are facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year. That means there will be difficult decisions about who gets help, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency.
According to Adnan Junaid, vice-president of the International Rescue Committee for Asia, local medical centers, which were already struggling to cope with cases of malnutrition, were now overwhelmed with people affected by the earthquake.
“The damage this disaster will inflict on the local population … is catastrophic, and the impact of the earthquake on the already strained humanitarian response in Afghanistan is of great concern,” Junaid said.
The Defense Ministry, which leads the Taliban’s emergency response, said 22 helicopters were sent on Wednesday to transport the wounded and deliver supplies, with more on Thursday.
However, the Taliban’s resources were depleted by the economic crisis. The Taliban, made up of insurgents who have been fighting against the US and NATO for 20 years, have also struggled to rise to power.
On Wednesday, a UN official said the government had not asked the world body to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries, despite Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada’s rare plea for peace help.
Trucks loaded with food and other essentials arrived from Pakistan, while planes carrying humanitarian aid landed from Iran and Qatar, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted. India said it sent a technical team to his embassy in Kabul to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid, but did not provide details about the team or humanitarian materials being sent.
Pakistan has also opened several nearby border crossings to allow disaster victims to cross the border, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sherif said in a telephone conversation with Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund.
Getting more direct international assistance can be trickier: Many countries, including the US, are channeling humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban for fear of dealing with the group that has issued a flurry of repressive decrees. restrictions on the rights of women and girls and the press.
Germany, Norway and a number of other countries have announced they are sending earthquake relief, but have stressed that they will only work through UN agencies and not with the Taliban.
In a news release on Thursday, Afghan state television highlighted that United States President Joe Biden – their former enemy – offered condolences over the earthquake and promised help. Biden on Wednesday ordered the U.S. international aid agency and its partners to “evaluate” options for helping victims, the White House said in a statement.
UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Ramiz Alekperov told the UN Security Council in a video briefing that he intends to visit the earthquake-affected areas on Friday and “meet with affected families, direct responders, including women’s civil society groups who are working to ensure that aid reached women and girls, and to support the overall relief effort.”
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. The roads are so difficult that some villages in the Gayan region could be reached in a whole day from Kabul, although it is only 175 kilometers (110 miles) away.
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.
While modern buildings can withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes elsewhere, mudbrick houses in Afghanistan and landslide-prone mountains make such earthquakes more dangerous.
One man, Rahim Jan, was standing inside the few remaining mudbrick walls of his house, with fallen roof beams all around him.
“It is completely destroyed, all my things are gone,” he said. “I lost 12 members of my family in this house.”
Associated Press contributors John Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lee Keith in Cairo, and Raheem Fayez and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.