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Survivors dig by hand for survivors of the deadly earthquake in Afghanistan

Survivors dug by hand Thursday in villages in eastern Afghanistan reduced to rubble by a powerful earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people, as the Taliban and the international community who fled their grip control were struggling to help the victims of the disaster.

In the hard-hit Gayan district of Paktika province, villagers stood on the mud bricks that once made up a house. Others cautiously navigated dirt alleys, clinging to damaged walls with exposed wooden beams to make their way.

The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials said the toll could rise. About 1,500 other people were reportedly injured, the state news agency said.

The disaster inflicted by the 6.0 magnitude earthquake is further deepening misery in a country where millions face growing hunger and poverty and where the health system has collapsed since the Taliban took over the power almost 10 months ago amid the withdrawal of the United States and NATO. The takeover cut off vital international funding, and most of the world shunned the Taliban government.

How – and if – the Taliban allows the world to offer help remains in question as rescuers without heavy equipment dig through the rubble with their bare hands.

“We ask the Islamic Emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” said a survivor who went by the name Hakimullah. “We are without anything and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”

A woman covers herself with a blanket after an earthquake shook the border provinces of Paktika, Afghanistan on June 22, 2022. (Photo by Bilal Guler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The extent of the destruction among the villages nestled in the mountains was slow to become apparent. Roads, which are rutted and difficult to navigate at the best of times, may have been badly damaged, and landslides from recent rains have made access even more difficult.

Many aid agencies have left the country

While modern buildings elsewhere withstand magnitude 6.0 earthquakes, Afghanistan’s mud and brick houses and landslide-prone mountains make such tremors even more dangerous.

Rescuers rushed in by helicopter, but the relief effort could be hampered by the exodus of many international aid agencies from Afghanistan after the Taliban took power last August. Moreover, most governments are reluctant to deal directly with the Taliban.

A sign of the tangled cogs between the Taliban and the rest of the world, the Taliban had not formally requested the United Nations to mobilize international search and rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighboring countries to supplement the few dozen ambulances and several helicopters sent by the Afghan authorities, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan.

Survivors dig by hand for survivors of the deadly earthquake in Afghanistan
Roads in the earthquake-hit area are rutted and difficult to navigate, and may have been badly damaged. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Still, officials from several UN agencies said the Taliban were giving them full access to the area.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight truckloads of food and other essentials from Pakistan have arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two humanitarian aid planes from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.

Obtaining more direct international assistance can be more difficult: many countries, including the United States, channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through the UN and other similar organizations to avoid putting money in the hands of the Taliban.

In a news report on Thursday, Afghan state television made a point of acknowledging that US President Joe Biden – their former enemy – offered his condolences for the earthquake and promised help. Biden on Wednesday ordered “USAID and other federal government partners to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected,” according to a White House statement.

Survivors dig by hand for survivors of the deadly earthquake in Afghanistan
Many buildings were damaged in Gayan district of Paktika province, which was worst hit by the earthquake. (Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The quake was centered in Paktika province, about 50 kilometers southwest of Khost city, according to the nearby Pakistan Meteorological Department. Experts estimate its depth at only 10 kilometers. Shallow earthquakes tend to cause more damage.

The death toll reported by the Bakhtar news agency was equal to that of a 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. They are the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake also measuring 6.1 and subsequent tremors in the far northeast killed at least 4,500 people.

Wednesday’s earthquake took place in an area prone to landslides, with many older and weaker buildings.

WATCH | Taliban call for international help after deadly earthquake:

Survivors dig by hand for survivors of the deadly earthquake in Afghanistan

Deadly earthquake hits Afghanistan, Taliban ask for international help

The Taliban are asking for urgent international help after a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck a remote part of southeastern Afghanistan, wiping out entire villages, killing at least 1,000 people and leaving many in need medical care.

In Speray district in neighboring Khost province, which also suffered severe damage, men stood on top of what was once an earthen house. The earthquake had torn its wooden beams. People sat outside under a makeshift tent made of a blanket blowing in the breeze.

Survivors quickly prepared the district’s dead, including children and a baby, for burial. Officials fear more dead will be found in the coming days.

“It is difficult to gather all the exact information because it is a mountainous region,” said Sultan Mahmood, head of the Speray district. “The information we have is what we have collected from people in these areas.”