Aid trickles in to Afghan earthquake zone, toll at 1,000 dead

Rescue workers and local residents survey a damaged house after an earthquake in Gayan village, Afghanistan, on June 22, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SHARAN, AFGHANISTAN (AFP, REUTERS) - Aid began arriving on Thursday (June 23) in a remote part of Afghanistan where an earthquake killed 1,000 people but poor communications and a lack of proper roads are hampering relief efforts in a country already grappling with a humanitarian crisis.

The 5.9-magnitude quake struck early on Wednesday about 160km south-east of Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan.

"We can’t reach the area, the networks are too week, we trying to get updates," Mr Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in hardest-hit Paktika province, told Reuters, referring to telephone networks.

The earthquake killed some 1,000 people and injured 1,500 injured, he said. More than 3,000 houses were destroyed.

The toll makes it Afghanistan's dealiest earthquake in two decades, according to US government data.

About 1,000 people had been rescued from various affected areas by Thursday morning, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesperson for the health ministry told Reuters.

“Aid has arrived to the area and it is continuing but more is needed,” he said.

The town of Gayan, close to the epicentre, sustained significant damage with most of its mud-walled buildings damaged or completely collapsed, a Reuters team said.

The town was bustling with Taliban soldiers and ambulances as a helicopter bringing in relief supplies landed nearby, whipping up huge swirls of dust. About 300 people sat on the ground waiting for supplies.

'Unprecedented crisis'

The rescue operation will be a major test for the hard-line Taliban, who took over last August as US-led international forces withdrew after two decades of war.

The humanitarian situation had deteriorated alarmingly since the Taliban takeover, aid officials say, with the country cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions.

Afghanistan’s economy has all but collapsed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in an appeal to aid donors in late March.

Drought has undermined food production and 9 million Afghans face famine. Some families have been forced to selling children and organs to survive, he said.

The United Nations said its World Food Programme (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, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan.

“The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily.” Japan and South Korea both said they also plan to send aid. 

The death toll climbed steadily Wednesday as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country's supreme leader, Mr Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it would likely rise further.

The earthquake struck areas that were already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that hampered rescue efforts.

"It was a horrible situation," said Mr Arup Khan, 22, recovering at a hospital in Paktika's provincial capital Sharan. "There were cries everywhere. The children and my family were under the mud."

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'Like a tsunami'

Sharan Hospital director Mohammad Yahya Wiar said they were doing their best to treat everyone.

"Our country is poor and lacks resources," he told AFP. "This is a humanitarian crisis. It is like a tsunami."

Photographs and video posted on social media showed scores of badly damaged houses in remote areas.

An ambulance shift victims of earthquake in Gayan village in Paktia province, Afghanistan, on June 22, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Footage released by the Taliban showed people in one village digging a long trench to bury the dead, who by Islamic tradition must be laid to rest facing Mecca.

The disaster poses a huge challenge for the Taliban, who have largely isolated the country with their hardline policies - particularly the subjugation of women and girls.

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan's emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently strike the country.

But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since they returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited.

"The government is working within its capabilities," tweeted Mr Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official.

"We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation."

Offers of help

Afghan people queue up in a line to donate blood for the earthquake victims being treated at a hospital in the city of Sharan, on June 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The United States, whose troops helped topple the initial Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan for two decades until Washington pulled them out last year, was "deeply saddened" by the earthquake, the White House said.

"President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID (US Agency for International Development) and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

The European Union was also quick to offer assistance.

Mr Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: "The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected."

Neighbour Pakistan, where officials said one person was killed in the quake, said it would send emergency aid - including tents - across the border.

Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara told a regular news conference on Thursday that the government was coordinating moves to "provide necessary support promptly" as well as assessing the situation to grasp local needs. 

South Korea plans to provide US$1 million (S$1.39 million) in humanitarian assistance to the victims, Seoul’s foreign ministry said on Thursday. 

Prayers for victims

An Afghan child is treated inside a hospital in the city of Sharan after getting injured in an earthquake in Gayan district on June 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.

Scores of people were killed in January when two quakes struck the western province of Badghis.

In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries.

Afghanistan's deadliest recent earthquake killed 5,000 in May 1998 in the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis offered prayers for victims of the latest quake.

"I express my closeness with the injured and those who were affected," the 85-year-old pontiff said concluding his weekly audience.

The quake struck in the early hours of Wednesday at a depth of 10km (six miles), according to the United States Geological Survey. It was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480km from the epicentre.

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