Organized rescue efforts are struggling to reach the site of an earthquake in Afghanistan that has killed more than 1,000 people, as survivors dig through the rubble by hand to find those still missing.
In Paktika province’s Gayan district, villagers stood atop mud bricks that were once a home. Others carefully walked through dirt alleyways, gripping on to damaged walls with exposed timber beams to make their way.
The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades and officials said the toll could rise. An estimated 1,500 other people were reported injured, the state-run news agency said.
The quake struck in the early hours of Wednesday morning in an area near the Pakistan border. Rescue efforts have been complicated by the fact that many countries have suspended or cut back on aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last year.
How and whether the Taliban allow the world to offer aid remained in question as rescuers without heavy equipment dug through rubble as best they could.
In a sign of the muddled workings between the Taliban and the rest of the world, they had not formally requested for the UN to mobilize international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent in by Afghan authorities, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative to Afghanistan.
In a surprising statement late on Thursday – barely a day after the quake – Mohammad Nassim Haqqani, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s disaster ministry, announced that rescue operations had finished in major districts although they were continuing in some isolated areas.
A second official echoed Haqqani’s comments. “The rescue operation has finished, no one is trapped under rubble,” Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesperson for the top Taliban military commander in Paktika province, told Reuters.
Rescue efforts have been further hindered by the rough rural roads and recent heavy rain and hail. “We ask from the Islamic emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who gave his name to him as Hakimullah. “We are with nothing and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”
The full extent of the destruction among the villages tucked in the mountains was slow in coming to light. However, officials from multiple UN agencies said the Taliban were allowing full access to the area. The UN said its World Food Program (WFP) was sending food and logistics equipment to affected areas, with the aim of initially supporting 3,000 households.
“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, the WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan. “The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily.”
The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that eight trucks of food and other necessities from Pakistan had arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two plans of humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in Afghanistan.
However, other Taliban officials underlined the difficulties they were having in scaling up the rescue effort. Gholam Ghaos Naseri, the Taliban’s deputy minister for natural disaster management, said: “We have sent dozens of people to rescue people from under the rubbles but they are not enough. Iran has promised us help and their rescue teams are on their way coming to the area.
“We call on the international humanitarian community, NGOs and humanitarian agencies to not leave our people alone in this terrible time. Help our people. For now, we need stuff like food, tents, clothes and drugs.
“We have sent dozens of people to rescue people from under the rubble but it is not enough. Iran has promised us help and their rescue teams are on their way coming to the area.”
Muawiyah told Reuters: “We can’t reach the area, the networks are too weak, we are trying to get updates,” referring to telephone networks.
Describing the rescue efforts in Paktika, one volunteer, Faiz Muhammad Sameem, 36, said: “Ambulances, helicopters and motorcycles, everyone is involved in relief but the hospital does not have enough facilities, the first aid was provided in the hospital.
“It’s a horrible scene. There were people who lost all of their family members. Some have lost 10 family members or some people have lost entire families. I’ve seen a five-year-old child who was the only survivor in his 13-member family of him. I don’t know how he will survive or if he knows what he has lost. It is unbearable.”
Obtaining more direct international help may be difficult: many countries, including the US, funnel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other such organizations to avoid putting money in the Taliban’s hands.
But in a news bulletin on Thursday, Afghanistan state television made a point of acknowledging that the US president, Joe Biden – their one-time enemy – offered condolences over the earthquake and had promised aid.
Biden on Wednesday ordered “USAid and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected,” a White House statement said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism