Men dug through rubble with their bare hands and shovels in western Afghanistan on Sunday, in desperate attempts to extract victims from the rubble left by powerful earthquakes that killed at least 2,000 people.
Entire villages were razed, bodies were trapped under collapsed houses and residents waited for help without even having shovels to dig up the victims.
Alive and dead, the victims were trapped in the rubble, their faces gray with dust. A government spokesperson said on Sunday that hundreds of people were still trapped, more than 1,000 injured and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.
“Most people were shocked… Some couldn’t even speak. But there were others who couldn’t stop crying and screaming,” photographer Omid Haqjoo, who visited four villages from Herat, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan.
Saturday’s 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck a densely populated area near Herat, before being followed by strong aftershocks.
A Taliban government spokesperson on Sunday provided a toll which, if confirmed, would make it one of the deadliest earthquakes to hit the country in two decades.
An earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan in June 2022, affecting a mountainous and rugged region, and destroying stone and mudbrick houses, in addition to killing at least 1,000 people.
In Herat, residents were able to free a little girl from a collapsed building after she was buried up to her neck in rubble. One hand held the baby’s torso as rescuers lifted him from the ground. Rescue workers said the hand belonged to the child’s mother. However, it is not known whether the mother survived. The video was shared online and verified by The Associated Press.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake’s epicenter was about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Herat. It was followed by three very strong aftershocks, measuring magnitudes of 6.3, 5.9 and 5.5, as well as smaller shocks.
Little humanitarian aid
While much of the world is reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban government and focuses on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Afghanistan has received no immediate international response. Nearly 36 hours after the first earthquake that hit the province of Herat, neither humanitarian planes nor specialists had arrived.
Humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations have called on the international community to come forward, but only a handful of countries have publicly offered support, including neighboring China and Pakistan.
The International Rescue Committee has warned that a lack of rescue equipment could drive up the death toll in western Afghanistan as trapped survivors cannot be freed.
“There is not a lot of disaster management capacity and what does exist cannot cover the people on the ground,” said Salma Ben Aissa, the committee’s director for Afghanistan. The number [de morts] increases hourly. »
People injured in Saturday’s earthquake cannot receive the care they need due to inadequate medical infrastructure, putting them at risk of losing their lives. Lack of food, shelter and clean water also increases health risks in affected communities.
M’s colleagueme Ben Aissa, Jawed Niamati, said that the city of Herat had been emptied of its inhabitants. People are sleeping in the open, on roadsides and in parks because they fear more earthquakes. Temperatures drop as much as 10 degrees Celsius at night, he said.
The international community rushed to provide aid after the earthquake that shook Syria and Turkey this year, killing tens of thousands of people.
Abdul Wahid Rayan, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, said on Sunday that hundreds of civilians had been buried under rubble in Herat and he called for urgent aid.
At least a dozen teams have been mobilized to help with the rescue efforts, including those from the military and non-profit organizations like the Red Crescent.
The UN migration agency deployed four ambulances with doctors and psychosocial support counselors to the regional hospital. At least three mobile health teams were on their way to Zenda Jan district, one of the worst-affected areas.
Doctors Without Borders has set up five medical tents at the Herat Regional Hospital to accommodate up to 80 patients. Authorities treated more than 300 patients, according to the agency. UNICEF, meanwhile, sent thousands of supplies, including winter clothing, blankets and tarpaulins, as temperatures dropped.
Irfanullah Sharafzai, spokesman for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said seven teams were busy with relief operations while others were arriving from eight neighboring provinces. They set up a temporary camp for the displaced people, Sharafzai said.
Some humanitarian groups, like the World Food Program, were already on site with essential items.
Later on Sunday, residents from surrounding villages brought supplies to support relief efforts.
A balance sheet to be revised upwards
The first earthquake felt was the most powerful, causing the most damage and casualties, photographer Haqjoo said, citing survivors.
Save the Children said the scale of the damage was horrific. “The numbers from this tragedy are truly worrying – and they will rise as people are still trapped in the rubble of their homes in Herat,” said the humanitarian organization’s Afghanistan director, Arshad Malik.
“It’s a crisis on top of a crisis. Even before this disaster, children were suffering from a devastating lack of food,” he added.
He called for an “urgent injection” of money from the international community.
Neighboring Pakistan said it was in contact with Afghan authorities to obtain an assessment of urgent needs.
China’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, said his government and the country’s charitable institutions were ready to provide all kinds of aid.
“We are in contact with Afghan government humanitarian agencies to provide aid to people who need it,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Afghan cricket star Rashid Khan has donated all his winnings from the Cricket World Cup to help Herat earthquake survivors.
“Soon we will launch a fundraising campaign to appeal to those who can support people in need,” he told his 1.9 million followers on X.
Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Takashi Okada, expressed his condolences on social network X, saying he was “deeply saddened to hear the news of the earthquake in Herat province.”