SHARANA, Afghanistan. As the ground shook, she said through her tears, she felt the walls of the room crumble on top of her. Then everything went dark. When Khava, a 30-year-old mother of six, regained consciousness, she was choking on the dust and struggled to understand what was happening around her.
“I didn’t expect to survive,” she said on Thursday, lying in a hospital bed in Sharan, the capital of southeastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
Her village of Dangal Regab, like many others in the Paktika Geyan region, was a picture of death and destruction following the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Afghanistan early Wednesday morning – the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades.
A group of reporters from The New York Times witnessed the extent of the destruction in Gei’an on Thursday and the scope of the backlash. Cars and trucks laden with supplies made their way through rugged dirt roads through mountainous terrain towards hillside villages dotted with ruined houses. Dazed residents wandered among the rubble, using tarps to build makeshift tents and bury the dead.
Afghan officials in hard-hit areas estimated that at least 1,000 people were killed and at least 1,600 injured on Wednesday. The United Nations Humanitarian Office on Thursday released a slightly lower estimate of 770 killed and 1,440 injured, but warned the numbers were likely to rise.
Relief officials said rescue efforts were being phased out and that they were focusing on survivors, who survived not only Wednesday’s heavy rain but unusually low temperatures that threatened to bring snow to some areas.
As the extent of the disaster became known on Thursday, the supreme leader of the island’s Taliban government, Haibatullah Akhundzada, made a rare request for international assistance.
The earthquake has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis that has gripped Afghanistan since the Taliban took over. The banking system has largely collapsed under the weight of international sanctions, and the foreign aid that supported public services under the previous government has disappeared. About half of the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.
The West has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to avert a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. But the Taliban have struggled to attract long-term aid from Western donors, who have resisted the new government’s restrictions on women and its human rights record.
The Afghan quake is a tough new test for the Biden administration’s approach to the Taliban, which it refuses to acknowledge or provide direct financial assistance after cutting off its access to $7 billion of foreign exchange reserves held in the United States.
And while the United States has sent more than $1 billion directly to domestic humanitarian programs over the past year, many human rights activists say the US government should work with the Taliban and provide economic assistance to the country to alleviate human suffering on an ongoing basis. wide and solid base.
Adding to the tragedy, the earthquake-hit areas along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan were among the poorest in the country even before the economic crisis.
On Thursday, roads to the earthquake zone were clogged with cars and trucks carrying humanitarian aid: bread, flour, rice and blankets, among other things. Ambulances attended to casualties in ambulances, while military helicopters hovered overhead.
But the only way to get to the affected areas is through dirt roads that climb steep mountain slopes and descend into muddy riverbeds swollen with recent rains.
On one steep section of the road, sacks of rice were strewn about, probably thrown off by drivers who feared losing control on the descent. There were no excavators or other heavy equipment that would be vital for such restoration work.
In Azor Kalai, one of the first villages in the earthquake zone, partly destroyed mud-brick houses were strewn across the hillside, their walls crumbling and their ceilings shattered to pieces. Among them were the white tarpaulins of makeshift tents, hastily erected by the surviving residents to protect them from the harsh elements.
As evening fell, sheep roamed about, and women cleared the rubble, salvaging what they could. Standing near what was left of his house, in the fresh night air, 30-year-old Padshah Gul tried to assess the extent of his personal tragedy. All family possessions – pots, kettles, dishes – were still buried.
“We must stay here, winter or spring,” he said, pointing to a makeshift tent. However, according to him, he was lucky to be alive.
Returning to the Paktika State Hospital in Sharan on Thursday, survivors described horrific scenes of collapsed buildings, anguished cries for help and bodies strewn across the desolate lunar landscape.
Like Hava, many of the survivors had a bleak future. Only two of her six children survived the earthquake. Her three sons and one daughter died along with 17 other family members.
“I lost everything, my whole world, my whole family, I have no hope for the future,” she said. “I wish I could lose everything so that we all die, because now there is no one to take care of us, find money or food for us.”
Recounting the hours she spent trapped in her ruined home, she said she felt her one-year-old daughter Safiya’s breasts barely move under her left arm. Her other daughter cried out weakly for water. Looking to where her sons were sleeping next to her, she saw only rubble.
She lay there for five hours, trying to protect Safiya from the crushing weight, hoping to keep her alive. Through the clouds of dust and darkness, she could see her father, desperately trying to clear the rubble, but to no avail.
Finally, as dawn broke and rain fell on what was left of the city, nearby villagers began to flock to organize a rescue operation, and Hawa and Safiya were freed from the rubble.
They were among 70-80 survivors taken to hospital on Wednesday, said Dr. Hikmatullah Esmat, director of public health in Paktika province.
In another corner of the hospital ward, 60-year-old Gulpar Khan stood quietly looking after his wounded cousin, whom he had brought from Dangal Regab the previous day.
According to him, when the earthquake hit, the ceiling of his house collapsed around him. He and his 20-year-old son, Spin Vali, managed to get out of the rubble, but he heard his brother screaming for help from the next room.
Mr. Khan said he yelled at his son to go get help. But when his son looked out through what used to be the front door, he said that the whole village was destroyed. Almost all the houses collapsed, and the air was filled with a chorus of neighbors’ cries for help.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” he said. “I could never imagine such a thing in the countryside.”
Mr. Khan climbed up to where he heard his brother’s voice and tried to tear off pieces of what was their home as the rain poured down on them. His son yelled at him that it was not safe to be in this room, but he didn’t listen, he said.
His brother survived. But 11 of his relatives, including his wife, five other sons and an uncle, were killed.
“I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life,” he said.
In the men’s ward, Abdul Khanan, 70, who had brought in several injured family members, sat on a bed in the corner and silently stared at his hands. He avoided death by choosing to stay overnight while visiting family in a nearby village. According to him, he was sleeping on Wednesday evening when he heard a loud crash, and the walls began to shake.
According to him, he and his relatives ran out of the house, but the damage was somewhat limited, and they were able to return and sleep until dawn.
It wasn’t until he began the hour-long walk back to his house at about 8 am that he began to have an inkling of the catastrophe that lay in wait for him.
The imam in a neighboring mosque urgently asked for help from neighboring villages, including his own.
Rushing home, he found that his house was completely destroyed, and four of his relatives were sitting under a tree in the yard, their clothes were covered in blood. The remaining 17 family members who lived with him were dead under the rubble.
“Now there is nothing, our houses are destroyed, we have nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing,” he said, quietly wiping away his tears.
“We were happy that the war was over,” he added. “We didn’t expect this kind of destruction to happen.”
Christina Goldbaum and Safiullah Padshah reported from Sharana and Azor Kalai in Afghanistan, and Kyle Crichton from Bondville, Virginia. Michael Crowley provided reporting from Washington.