Afghan earthquake survivors dig by hand as rescuers struggle to reach the area

Organized rescue efforts struggle to reach the site of an earthquake in Afghanistan that killed more than 1,000 people, as survivors dig by hand through the rubble to find those still missing.

In the hard-hit Gayan district of Paktika province, villagers stood on mud bricks that used to be a house. Others cautiously navigated dirt alleys, clinging to damaged walls with exposed wooden beams to make their way.

The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades and officials said the toll could rise. Around 1,500 other people were reportedly injured, the state news agency said.

The earthquake struck in the early hours of Wednesday morning in an area near the Pakistani border. Rescue efforts have been complicated by the fact that many countries suspended or reduced aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban took power last year.

How – and if – the Taliban allows – the world to offer aid remained in question as rescuers without heavy equipment dug through the rubble as best they could.

A sign of the tangled cogs between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban had not formally requested the UN to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozens of ambulances and several helicopters sent by the Afghan authorities, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan earthquake survivors appeal for help – video

Rescue efforts have been further hampered by rough rural roads and recent heavy rains and hail.

“We ask the Islamic emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who went by the name of Hakimullah. “We are without anything and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”

The scale of the destruction among the villages nestled in the mountains has been slow to come to light. However, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban were allowing full access to the area.

The UN said its World Food Program (WFP) was sending food and logistical material to the affected areas, with the aim of initially supporting 3,000 households.

“The people of Afghanistan are already facing an unprecedented crisis after decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, WFP’s deputy director in Afghanistan. “The earthquake will only add to the already enormous humanitarian needs they endure daily.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that eight truckloads of food and other essentials from Pakistan had arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two humanitarian aid planes from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in Afghanistan.

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However, other Taliban officials pointed to the difficulties they faced in stepping up the rescue effort.

Gholam Ghaos Naseri, Taliban Deputy Minister for Natural Disaster Management, said: “We have sent dozens of people to rescue people from the rubble, but they are not enough. Iran has promised us help and their rescue teams are on their way to the area.

“We call on the international humanitarian community, NGOs and humanitarian agencies not to leave our people alone at this terrible time. Help our people. For now, we need food, tents, clothes and medicine.

“We have sent dozens of people to rescue people from the rubble, but it is not enough. Iran has promised us help and their rescue teams are on their way to the area. We appeal to international humanitarian aid.

Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, spokesman for the Taliban’s top military commander in Paktika, told Reuters: “We can’t reach the area, the networks are too weak, we are trying to get updates,” referring to the networks telephone.

Describing the rescue efforts in Paktika, a volunteer, Faiz Muhammad Sameem, 36, said: “Ambulances, helicopters and motorbikes, everyone is involved in the rescue but the hospital does not have enough facilities, the first aid was given at the hospital.

“It’s a horrible scene. There were people who lost all their family members. Some have lost 10 family members or some people have lost entire families.

“I saw a five-year-old child who was the sole survivor of his family of 13 members. I don’t know how he will survive or if he knows what he has lost. It’s unbearable.”

However, obtaining more direct international assistance can be difficult: many countries, including the United States, channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other similar organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban.

But in a Thursday news bulletin, Afghan state television made a point of acknowledging that US President Joe Biden – their former enemy – had offered his condolences for the earthquake and promised help.

Biden on Wednesday ordered “USAid and other federal government partners to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected,” according to a White House statement.

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