Deadly quake spells disaster for 'isolated' Afghanistan

Published June 23, 2022
The earthquake that shook Afghanistan on Wednesday was said to be the worst since 2002.— AFP
The earthquake that shook Afghanistan on Wednesday was said to be the worst since 2002.— AFP
(CLOCKWISE from left) A man stands next to a collapsed house in the Gayan district of Paktika province; a woman sits with her injured child on a hospital bed in Sharan; while workers transport emergency supplies meant for quake-hit areas of Afghanistan.—AFP / Twitter-UNICEFAfg
(CLOCKWISE from left) A man stands next to a collapsed house in the Gayan district of Paktika province; a woman sits with her injured child on a hospital bed in Sharan; while workers transport emergency supplies meant for quake-hit areas of Afghanistan.—AFP / Twitter-UNICEFAfg

• Over 1,000 said to be killed, hundreds injured by tremor with epicentre around Paktika, Khost provinces
• Many remote areas cut off, hospitals packed with injured
• Pakistan sends first batch of relief supplies, urges world not to ‘link help with politics’
• US and UN considering aid options

KABUL: A deadly 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Afghanistan in the early hours of Wednesday morning has killed around a thousand people and left at least 600 injured, disaster management officials said.

Said to be the worst quake in Afghanistan since 2002, the seismic event occurred 44km from Khost, near the border with Pakistan, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).

The tremors from the quake were felt by about 119 million people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said on Twitter.

Read more: Earthquake kills 30 Pakistani tribesmen in North Waziristan

The EMSC put the earthquake’s magnitude at 6.1, though the USGS said it was 5.9.

Interior ministry official Salahuddin Ayubi said the death toll was likely to rise “as some of the villages are in remote areas in the mountains and it will take some time to collect details.”

However, images and videos coming out of the country showed houses reduced to rubble and bodies swathed in blankets lying on the ground.

An unknown number of people remained stuck under rubble and in outlying areas, health and aid workers said, while rescue operations were complicated by difficult conditions including heavy rains, landslides and many villages being nestled in inaccessible hillside areas.

“Many people are still buried under the soil. Rescue teams have arrived and with the help of locals are trying to take out the dead and injured,” a health worker at a hospital in the hard-hit Paktika province said.

Disaster experts and humanitarian workers said the impoverished hilly areas struck by the quake were especially vulnerable, with landslides and poorly built houses adding to widespread destruction.

Eyewitness accounts

“We were all sleeping at home... and the room fell over us,” said Gul Faraz as he received treatment for injuries with his wife and children at a hospital in Paktika. Some family members had been killed, he said.

“All the houses in our area were destroyed, not one, but the entire region has been destroyed.” Most of the confirmed deaths were in the eastern province of Paktika, where 255 people were killed and more than 200 injured, Ayubi said. In the province of Khost, 25 were dead and 90 had been taken to hospital.

Adding to the challenge for Afghan authorities is recent flooding in many regions, which has blocked stretches of highway.

Hospitals in rural Afghanistan have come under pressure as well. From her hospital bed in Sharan, the capital of Paktika province, tears stream down Bibi Hawa’s face as she tries to grasp her predicament.

At least a dozen members of her family were among those killed. “Where will I go, where will I go?” the 55-year-old asks repeatedly.

As a nurse tries to calm her down, talking to her gently and caressing her forehead, Bibi sighs: “My heart is weak.”

In the room where Bibi is being treated a dozen other women lie on beds – many asleep, some burrowed beneath blankets, others hooked up to vital fluids.

Shahmira is unhurt, but her one-year-old grandson lies in her lap, a large dressing covering his temple.

On the next bed her daughter-in-law is sleeping off her injuries, while a son is being treated in a different ward.

“We were sleeping when we heard a loud noise,” she says.

“I screamed... I thought my family was buried under the rubble and that I was the only one” still alive.

In an adjacent ward, a dozen men are also recovering on beds. One father holds his son on his lap while nearby, another child lies under a blue blanket. His left arm is also in a cast, while on his forehead a white bandage bears the word “emergency” written in black marker.

“There were cries everywhere. The children and my family were under the mud.” Mohammad Yahya Wiar, director of Sharan Hospital, says they have been doing their best to treat everyone.

When the injured arrived, they “were crying, and we were crying too”, he says.

But locals are rallying to help. In front of the hospital, a hundred men are waiting patiently.

“They have come to give blood – about 300 have already given it since this morning,” explains a Taliban fighter.

Assistance from Pakistan

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, President Arif Alvi and the military’s top brass expressed their condolences over the loss of life in the quake and pledged to provide all possible humanitarian assistance to people of Afghanistan.

In line with this commitment, a convoy of trucks carrying relief assistance left for Khost on Wednesday night. The relief consignment includes tents, covers, blankets and medicines, which would be handed over to Afghan authorities.

The convoy of trucks carrying relief aid would reach Khost via the Ghulam Khan border.

In a statement, the Foreign Office said the people of Pakistan stood in solidarity with their Afghan brethren in this difficult time. “We have no doubt that the brotherly Afghan people will overcome the effects of this natural calamity with their characteristic resilience,” it said.

The FO said Pakistani authorities and institutions were working to extend required assistance to Afghanistan in coordination with their relevant institutions.

International assistance

After an Afghan foreign ministry spokesman said the Taliban would welcome international help, US President Joe Biden has directed Usaid and other federal government entities to assess how they can respond.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations was fully mobilised, assessing needs and providing initial support.

But according to Ramiz Alakbarov, the deputy UN envoy in Afghanistan, the United Nations does not have search and rescue capabilities in Afghanistan and Turkey is “best positioned” to provide such support.

At the UN, Pakistan urged the international community not to link assistance for the disaster-hit nation with political concerns.

“The humanitarian assistance should not become a victim of geopolitics. UN’s humanitarian principles, including the principles of neutrality and impartiality must be upheld,” said Ambassador Munir Akram at a Tuesday night meeting on humanitarian assistance in New York.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2022

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