HASAt least 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 others injured in a 5.9-magnitude earthquake that struck southeastern Afghanistan overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday, according to Afghan authorities, who fear the balance sheet continues to worsen. “The death toll has reached 1,000 dead and this figure is increasing. People are digging grave after grave, Paktika provincial information and culture department chief Mohammad Amin Huzaifa said in a message to the press. According to him, some 1,500 people were also injured in Paktika, in what is already the deadliest earthquake in Afghanistan in more than two decades. “It is also raining and all the houses are destroyed. There are no tents or food. People are still trapped under the rubble. (…) We need immediate help”, described Mohammad Amin Huzaifa.
The earthquake occurred at a depth of 10 km around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, very close to the border with Pakistan, according to the American Seismological Institute (USGS). A second quake of magnitude 4.5 hit almost the same place at the same time, according to the USGS. According to Yaqub Manzor, a tribal leader from Paktika, many of the injured came from Giyan district in the province and were taken to hospital by ambulances and helicopters. “Local markets are closed and people have rushed (to help) to the affected areas,” he told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
“We have two dead and five wounded in our family,” Arup Khan, a survivor hospitalized in Sharan, the capital of Paktika province, told AFP. “When I got up, I was covered in dust. People came and took us out. The situation was awful […]. There were screams everywhere, the children and my whole family were under the mud,” he added. Nearly 2,000 houses were destroyed.
International aid comes in dribs and drabs
Photos posted on social media showed collapsed houses in the streets of a village. Videos also showed residents of the affected areas loading injured people into a helicopter. The earthquake was felt in several provinces of the region, and also in the capital Kabul, located about 200 km north of the epicenter of the earthquake. “Much of the region is mountainous and travel is difficult. It will take time to transport the dead and injured,” said Minister of Natural Disasters Mohammad Abbas Akhund. Limited in number and capacity for a long time, the emergency services in Afghanistan are unsuited to dealing alone with a major natural disaster. And international aid is difficult to mobilize, NGOs and UN agencies being less present than in the past since the Taliban took power in August.
“The government is doing the best it can,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, another senior Taliban official. “We hope that the international community and humanitarian organizations will also help people in this terrible situation. The quake was also felt in neighboring Pakistan, where one person was killed and a few houses were damaged. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said he was “deeply saddened” by this tragedy and indicated that the Pakistani authorities were working to support their Afghan counterparts. From the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed his “sympathy” to the victims.
The UN has announced that it has deployed teams to assess the extent of the damage in several of the affected areas. “The de facto authorities have requested the support of UNICEF and teams from other UN agencies who are joining efforts to assess the situation and respond to the needs of the affected communities”, said the representative of the United Nations Fund united for children, the Dr Mohamed Ayoy, in a press release. Already, “UNICEF has sent several mobile health and nutrition teams to provide first aid to injured people,” he said. The office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Afghanistan has also highlighted the speed of the humanitarian response. “Within hours, WHO teams were helping local health workers save lives and care for people affected by the earthquake in Afghanistan. Emergency kits have arrived at Paktika Province Hospital to meet the immediate needs of the injured,” he tweeted.
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies at the junction between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. These disasters can be particularly devastating due to the weak resilience of rural Afghan homes. In October 2015, a powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit the Hindu Kush range, straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing more than 380 people in these two countries. Among the Afghan victims were 12 young girls, trampled in a panic as they tried to get out of their tottering school. Since the Taliban came to power in Kabul last August, Afghanistan has been plunged into a serious financial and humanitarian crisis, caused by the freezing of billions of assets held abroad and the sudden cessation of aid international community which has carried the country at arm’s length for twenty years, and which is now coming back in dribs and drabs.