SHARANA, Afghanistan – As the earth shook, she said, speaking through her tears, she felt the walls of the room crumble on top of her. Then everything went black. When Hawa, a 30-year-old mother of six, regained consciousness, she was choking on dust and struggling to make sense of the scene around her.
“I didn’t expect to survive,” she said Thursday from her hospital bed in Sharana, the provincial capital of Afghanistan’s southeast Paktika province.
His village, Dangal Regab, like many others in Geyan district of Paktika, was a tableau of death and destruction following the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that struck in the early hours of Wednesday – the most murderer in Afghanistan for two decades.
A New York Times reporting team witnessed the scale of the devastation in Geyan on Thursday – and the scale of the response. On rough unpaved roads in mountainous terrain, cars and trucks loaded with supplies headed for hillside villages dotted with destroyed homes. Dazed residents made their way through the debris, using tarps to build makeshift tents and bury the dead.
Afghan officials in hard-hit areas estimated on Wednesday that at least 1,000 people had been killed and at least 1,600 injured. The United Nations humanitarian office offered a slightly lower estimate on Thursday – 770 people killed and 1,440 people injured – but warned its figures were likely to rise.
Relief officials said the rescue effort was winding down and they were focusing on the survivors, who endured not only heavy rain on Wednesday but also unseasonably freezing temperatures that threatened to bring devastation. snow in some areas.
As the scale of the disaster became apparent on Thursday, the supreme leader of the island Taliban government, Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a rare appeal for international assistance.
The earthquake added to an already severe humanitarian crisis that has engulfed Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. 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. According to the World Food Programme, about half of the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity.
The West has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid to avert a real humanitarian catastrophe. But the Taliban has struggled to attract longer-term aid from Western donors, who have balked at the new government’s restrictions on women and its human rights record.
The earthquake in Afghanistan poses a tough new test for the Biden administration’s approach to the Taliban, whom it refuses to recognize or provide direct financial aid after cutting off its access to $7 billion in reserves. foreign currencies held in the United States.
And while the United States has sent more than $1 billion directly to humanitarian programs in the country over the past year, many human rights advocates say the US government must work with the Taliban and provide the country with economic assistance to alleviate human suffering on a broad and sustainable basis.
Adding to the misery, the quake-affected areas along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan were among the poorest in the country even before the economic crash.
On Thursday, the roads leading to the earthquake zone were jammed with cars and trucks loaded with humanitarian aid: bread, flour, rice and blankets, among others. Emergency medical workers treated the injured in ambulances as military helicopters flew overhead.
But the disaster areas are only accessible by dirt roads that climb the steep sides of the mountains and turn into muddy riverbeds, swollen by recent rains.
Sacks of rice littered the road on a steep stretch – likely unloaded by drivers fearful of losing control on the descent. Nowhere in sight were excavators or other heavy equipment that would be vital to such a recovery effort.
In Azor Kalai, one of the first villages in the earthquake zone, partially destroyed mud-brick houses were scattered on the hillside – their walls crumbled and their ceilings collapsed. Among them were the white tarps of makeshift tents, hastily erected by surviving residents as protection from the harsh elements.
As night fell, the sheep gathered and the women sorted through the rubble, salvaging what they could. Standing in front of what was left of her home in the cool night air, Padshah Gul, 30, tried to assess the extent of her personal tragedy. All of the family’s possessions – pots, kettles, utensils – were still buried.
“We have to stay here, winter or spring,” he said, pointing to the makeshift tent. Still, he said, he felt lucky to be alive.
Returning to Paktika Government Hospital in Sharana on Thursday, survivors described horrific scenes of collapsed buildings, anguished cries for help and bodies strewn across a desolate moonscape.
Like Hawa, many of these survivors faced a bleak future. Only two of her six children survived the earthquake. His 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 we had lost everything, that we were all dead, because there is no one left to take care of us, to find money or food for us now.”
Recounting the hours she spent stuck in her collapsed home, she said she could feel her one-year-old daughter Safia’s chest barely move under her left hand. Her other daughter cried out weakly, asking for water. Looking at where her sons had slept next to her, all she saw was rubble.
She stood there for five hours, trying to shield Safia from the crushing weight, hoping to keep her alive. Through clouds of dust and darkness, she could make out her father desperately trying and failing to remove the rubble.
Eventually, as day broke and rain fell on what was left of the town, residents of nearby villages began to flock to mount a rescue effort, and Hawa and Safia were freed from the wreckage. .
They were among 70 to 80 survivors brought to hospital on Wednesday, said Dr Hikmatullah Esmat, director of public health for Paktika province.
In another corner of the hospital ward, Gulpar Khan, 60, was quietly tending to an injured cousin he had brought the day before from Dangal Regab.
When the earthquake hit, the ceiling of his house collapsed around him, he said. He and his 20-year-old son Spin Wali managed to fight their way out of the rubble, but he could hear his brother screaming for help from the next room.
Mr Khan said he yelled at his son to get help. But when his son looked through what had been their front door, he said the whole village had been destroyed. Almost every house had collapsed and the air was filled with a chorus of neighbors crying out for help.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” he said. “I could never imagine such a thing in the village.”
Mr Khan climbed to where he heard his brother’s voice and tried to remove pieces of what had been their home as the rain fell on them. His son yelled at him that he wasn’t sure he was in that 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.
“In all my life, I have never experienced anything like this,” he said.
In the men’s ward, Abdul Hanan, 70, who had brought in injured family members, sat on a bed in the corner, quietly staring at his hands. He had escaped death by deciding to spend the night while visiting his family in a nearby village. He was sleeping Wednesday night when he heard a loud rumbling and the walls started shaking, he said.
He and his relatives fled the house, he said, but the damage was somewhat limited and they were able to return and sleep until daybreak.
It wasn’t until he started the hour-long walk home around 8 a.m. that he had a foreboding of the disaster that awaited him.
The imam of a nearby mosque was making an urgent appeal for help to neighboring villages, including his own.
Rushing home, he found his house completely destroyed and four of his relatives sitting under a tree in their yard, their clothes soaked in blood. The other 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 the war was over,” he added. “We did not expect such destruction to occur.”
Christina Goldbaum and Safiullah Padshah reported from Sharana and Azor Kalai, Afghanistan, and Kyle Crichton from Bondville, Vt. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.