GAYAN, Afghanistan — Villagers rushed to bury the dead Thursday and dug by hand through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors of a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that state media reported killed 1,000 people.
Residents appeared to be largely on their own to deal with the aftermath as their new Taliban-led government and the international aid community struggled to bring in help.
Refugees feel the quake despite distance from home
Back in Southern Vermont, where more than 100 Afghan refugees and their families relocated after the the U.S. withdrawal last year, hearts were heavy for the newcomers and their supporters.
One refugee, an Afghan living in Windham County, said that her contacts in Afghanistan are noting that help, from the Taliban within the country and other nations without, is scant. She lamented the $12 million in aid offered by the Taliban as too little for the damage involved.
Refugees here in Vermont want to help their countrymen, she said, but have few resources, recently fleeing Afghanistan with little. Even with nothing material to offer, this refugee feels a deep desire to help.
“I wish to go back home, and even if I can’t help them, they could just share their concerns to me, which is a kind of sympathy,” she said.
Amir, an emigre from Afghanistan who now works in Southern Vermont, said his relatives and friends are not from the stricken region, but he feels sympathy pangs for his homeland nonetheless.
“Afghanistan is my/our country of origin, and we can feel the pain, and know what this earthquake can add to the burden of Afghans’ situations,” said Amir.
Ripples in the Northshire
Word also filtered in through Afghan refugees who have resettled in the Northshire. Yvonne Lodico, the executive director of Grace Initiative Global, said a refugee, Abdul, who settled in Manchester in late May, has heard from family and friends in the country.
Lodico said this refugee was in the Afghan Air Force and worked at the airport in Kabul before leaving the country.
“[He] said that his family is fine, although they felt the tremors in Kunduz (8 hours away),” Lodico said in an email. “He has a friend who lives in the area, and he said it is terrible, no food, no shelter, no clothing.”
Lodico’s organization is partnering with Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine nongovernmental organizations working with the State Department to help Afghan refugees find new homes in the U.S.
“In terms of the earthquake, we started a plan for launching an appeal for clothing and if possible food and funds to pay for delivery,” Lodico said. “We can organize the delivery of the items from Pakistan,” she added, saying the organization has a network there and people on the ground in Afghanistan who can help deliver needed items.
Emotional support offered
Thomas Huddleston helps lead the refugee office at the Multicultural Community Center in Brattleboro. He said staffers from his organization, though its parent, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, have been reaching out to Afghans in Southern Vermont, “through our classes at our Multicultural Community Center, our interpreters and our WhatsApp groups.”
Huddleston said his group is helping to connect refugees with one another to share information. He said the Multicultural Community Center is making itself available “for any grieving or actions that they need to organize.”
“So far, from initial reports, no one has family who have been directly affected by the earthquake, but, as one young woman put it, the earthquake ‘has caused a lot of human and financial losses,’” said Huddleston in an email Wednesday.
The center, meanwhile, is checking with newcomers from Afghanistan’s eastern provinces to see what more help it can offer.
Death toll climbing
Mohammad Amin Hudhaifa, head of the Taliban’s information and culture department in Paktika, told the BBC that the number of wounded had risen to 1,500.
Under a leaden sky in Paktika province, the epicenter of Wednesday’s earthquake where hundreds of homes have been destroyed, men dug several long trenches on a mountainside overlooking their village. They prayed over around 100 bodies wrapped in blankets and then buried them.
In villages across Gayan District, toured by Associated Press journalists for hours Thursday, families who had spent the previous rainy night out in the open lifted pieces of timber of collapsed roofs and pulled away stones by hand, looking for missing loved ones. Taliban fighters circulated in vehicles in the area, but only a few were seen helping dig through rubble.
There was little sign of heavy equipment — only one bulldozer was spotted being transported. Ambulances circulated, but little other help to the living was evident.
Aid agencies withdrew long ago
Many international aid agencies withdrew from Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power nearly 10 months ago. Those that remain are scrambling to get medical supplies, food and tents to the remote quake-struck area, using shoddy mountain roads made worse by damage and rains.
“We ask from the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who gave his name as Hakimullah. “We are with nothing and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”
The scenes underscored how the magnitude 6 quake has struck a country that was already nearly on its knees from multiple humanitarian crises.
The quake took the lives of 1,000 people, according to the state-run Bakhtar News Agency, which also reported an estimated 1,500 more were injured. In the first independent count, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said around 770 people had been killed in Paktika and neighboring Khost province.
It’s not clear how the totals were arrived at, given the difficulties of accessing and communicating with the affected villages. Either grim toll would make the quake Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials continued to warn the number could still rise.
Since the Taliban took over in August amid the U.S and NATO withdrawal, the world pulled back financing and development aid that had been keeping the country afloat. The economy collapsed, leaving millions unable to afford food; many medical facilities shut down, making treatment harder to find.
In crisis before the quake
Nearly half the population of 38 million faces crisis levels of food insecurity. Recent floods in May in three northern Afghan provinces have destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland, killed livestock, killed scores and destroyed dozens of homes.
Many aid and development agencies also left after the Taliban seizure of power. The U.N. and remaining agencies said they were moving blankets, food, tents and medical teams to the area. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Wednesday that the first search and rescue team has been sent to the region for medical and rescue operations.
But they are overstretched, and U.N. agencies are facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year. That means there will be difficult decisions about who gets aid, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
Local medical centers, already struggling to deal with malnutrition cases, were now overwhelmed with people injured by the quake, said Adnan Junaid, the International Rescue Committee vice president for Asia.
“The toll this disaster will have on the local communities ... is catastrophic, and the impact the earthquake will have on the already stretched humanitarian response in Afghanistan is a grave cause for concern,” Junaid said.
Taliban resources gutted
The Defense Ministry, which leads the Taliban emergency effort, said it sent 22 helicopter flights on Wednesday, transporting wounded and taking supplies, along with several more Thursday.
Still, the Taliban’s resources have been gutted by the economic crisis. Made up of insurgents who fought for 20 years against the U.S. and NATO, the Taliban have also struggled to make the transition to governing.
On Wednesday, a U.N. official said the government had not requested that the world body mobilize international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries, despite a rare plea from the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, for help from the world.
Trucks of food and other necessities arrived from Pakistan, and planes full of humanitarian aid landed from Iran and Qatar, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter.
Obtaining more direct international help might be more difficult: Many countries, including the U.S., funnel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the U.N. and other organizations to avoid putting money in the Taliban’s hands, wary of dealing with the group, which has issued a flurry of repressive edicts curtailing the rights of women, girls and the press.
Won’t work with repressive government
Germany, Norway and several other countries announced they were sending aid for the quake, but underscored that they would work only through U.N. agencies, not with the Taliban.
In a news bulletin Thursday, Afghanistan state television made a point to acknowledge that President Joe Biden of the United States — their one-time enemy — offered condolences over the earthquake and had promised aid. Biden on Wednesday ordered the U.S. international aid agency and its partners to “assess” options for helping the victims, a White House statement said.
U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told the U.N. Security Council in a video briefing he intends to visit quake-hit areas on Friday and “to meet with affected families, first-hand responders, including women’s civil society groups who are working to ensure that assistance reaches women and girls, and to support overall relief efforts.”
According to seismologists, the quake had a magnitude of 6.1 at a depth of 32 miles.
The quake affected more than 310 miles of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Witnesses reported the quake in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, as well as Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Afghanistan is an earthquake-prone country, because it is located in a tectonically active region on a number of fault lines, including the Chaman, Harirod, Badakhshan Central and Darvaz faults.
According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 7,000 people have died in earthquakes over the past decade.
In Paktika province, the quake shook a region of deep poverty, where residents scrape out in a living in the few fertile areas among the rough mountains. Roads are so difficult that some villages in Gayan District took a full day to reach from Kabul, though it is only 110 miles away.
One 6-year-old boy in Gayan wept as he said his parents, two sisters and a brother were all dead. He had fled the ruins of his own home and took refuge with the neighbors.
While modern buildings withstand magnitude 6 earthquakes elsewhere, Afghanistan’s mud-brick homes and landslide-prone mountains make such quakes more dangerous.
One man, Rahim Jan, stood inside the few standing mud-brick walls of his home with the toppled roof timbers all around him.
“It is destroyed completely, all my belongings are gone,” he said. “I have lost 12 members of my family in this house.”