A day after a massive earthquake struck this remote part of eastern Afghanistan, leveling hundreds of simply built structures and wiping out whole villages, overwhelmed residents were digging with bare hands through what used to be their homes, while the country’s new rulers were grappling with the aftermath of one of the deadliest natural disasters in decades.
The Taliban government on Thursday issued fresh appeals for international aid and called on the Biden administration to release Afghan assets held in U.S. banks. Despite seizing Kabul and sweeping to power in August, the Taliban has been unable to access billion of dollars in funds due to U.S. sanctions.
Even as they struggled to take stock of the damage, Afghan officials and international relief organizations said the situation was dire. As of Thursday morning, the death toll stood at around 1,000, with more than 1,600 injured.
Muhammad Nasim Haqqani, a spokesman of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, told The Washington Post that many of the injured in Paktika and Khost provinces — a rugged, mountainous area that borders Pakistan — have been moved to hospitals while some of the seriously wounded have been airlifted to the capital, Kabul.
It was still impossible to take full account of how many homes had collapsed, Haqqani added. But aside from the dead and wounded, the quake has left countless residents homeless and exposed to pouring rain, compounding the misery in a region already wracked by war and a severe economic crisis.
In some of the hardest-hit villages, entire homes have been reduced to rubble. Most houses in this region are built with mud bricks, which disintegrated in the quake. Gardens are stacked with dusty cushions, clothing and carpets. A handful of homes look as though walls have been shaved off, revealing intimate interiors: stacks of cooking pots, a shattered bathroom mirror, bright curtains hanging askew.
The shallow, 5.9-magnitude earthquake, which was so powerful it was felt hundreds of miles away in India and Iran, poses a challenge to both the Taliban government and the international community. Since the American withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover last year, the group has implemented ultraconservative social policies and restricted the rights of Afghan women, deepening its international isolation and leaving it cut off from most of the foreign aid that once kept the country afloat.
Now, the question is whether foreign governments that have been loath to deal with the group will step in to help.
So far, Biden administration officials have said they are monitoring the situation and assessing how best to help. The United States is “working with partners to deploy medical teams to provide immediate care to people affected, send assessment teams, and to maintain stocks of shelter supplies and relief items in the area to support initial response efforts,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said on Twitter on Thursday, signaling that it would not be directly involved. “U.S. funding for assistance flows directly to the UN and experienced, carefully chosen international partners who are providing critical aid to the people of Afghanistan.”
Some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have already dispatched aid. Pakistan said Thursday it was sending eight trucks with tents, blankets and medicine across the border, while Iran and Qatar sent three planes filled with supplies, according to Taliban officials.
The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, called upon “the international community, welfare and humanitarian organizations to come forward and provide assistance to the earthquake affected people of Afghanistan.”
“Whatever help you can,” he said in a statement, “you should provide at this critical moment.”
On the ground, meanwhile, families in devastated villages spoke of being overwhelmed by the immediate task of digging through rubble for their loved ones — or finding a dry place to sleep.
At a hospital in Urgun, a woman named Pastikhila from Barmal district recalled narrowly escaping from under her falling roof early Wednesday morning after she and her husband were awakened by the tremors.
Pastikhila grabbed one of her daughters and her nephew as she ran from the house, but her other two children didn’t escape in time. “It happened so fast I couldn’t save all my children,” she said.
When the shaking stopped, she began to dig. After one hour, her children’s screams faded away. She kept digging for another eight hours until she reached their bodies.
“When they stopped screaming, I knew they were dead,” she said, sitting exhausted at the hospital where she pleaded with doctors for more sedatives. “I just want to sleep,” she said weakly.
There is little hope here of finding survivors. The World Food Program said Thursday that 70 percent of homes in Barmal were completely destroyed.
Similar scenes of misery played out across the stricken region as day broke on Thursday, after a night of rain that washed away roads, hampered rescue efforts and drenched the newly homeless.
In Paktika’s Giyan district, Yasin, a doctor and former provincial council member, said he slept in the rain without food or shelter. About 1,100 families spent the night exposed to the elements, he estimated, adding that some charities and government representatives had promised tents and first aid but had not begun distributing them yet.
The U.N. refugee agency said Thursday that it was “rushing” emergency shelters out of its warehouse in Kabul for distribution.
In many of the worst-hit districts, Taliban leaders were fanning out to survey damage, provide food and rally residents’ spirits — with mixed results. Near a dirt field in eastern Paktika, where Taliban officials swooped down in several helicopters, kicking up a cloud of dust, residents spoke of the pressing need for shelter.
The Taliban leaders handed out bread to the crowd of men and boys, but just a few miles away in Didi Qala village, where 45 people were killed and nearly every house had been damaged beyond repair, Mir Zahkan, the local elder, said families didn’t want food handouts.
“A piece of bread is just for one day, what should we do with that?” he asked.
“We need tents and money to rebuild,” he said, echoing fears among the villagers that their quake-damaged homes could collapse completely.
More than 80 families are now living and sleeping outdoors, he said. Some have makeshift tents, but the fabric offers little more than basic privacy and no protection.
“When it rains, the children are shivering,” he said. “But there is nothing we can do.”
Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Shih from New Delhi. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.