Sitting on a hill overlooking the remote Gayan district, Abdullah Abed pointed towards several freshly dug graves. “They screamed for help,” he said of his son Farhadullah, 10, and daughter Basrina, 18. “We tried to save them but by the time we pulled them out of the rubble, their voices had gone quiet.”
Today they lie buried beside 10 other family members lost in the 5.9-magnitude earthquake that struck eastern Afghanistan in the early hours of Wednesday. An estimated 250 people have died in the hard-hit district, many of them now buried next to Abed’s children, among the more than 1,150 people feared dead and 1,500 injured across Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika and Khost provinces. It was Afghanistan’s deadliest quake in two decades.
“We fear there’s more to come,” said Abed, 65, as aftershocks continued to hit the area. Another heavy tremor on Friday reportedly killed at least 40 and destroyed homes in neighbouring Barmal district, sending scores of people fleeing towards Gayan, where the majority of aid has arrived.
The quake comes at a bleak moment for already impoverished Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s takeover last August, billions of dollars of Afghan funds remain frozen in US banks, while the majority of development aid – previously funding up to 80% of the former government’s expenses – has dried up. With high unemployment rates and a deteriorating economy, the UN predicts that 97% of the population will be living below the poverty line by the second half of the year.
“This is a big tragedy and we request the help of all humanitarian organisations in this critical time,” said Dr Sharafat Zaman Amar, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s ministry of public health. He said more than 35 villages were destroyed and tents, medicine, food and drinking water were urgently needed.
With their house reduced to rubble, Abed and his wife, Lawanga, had been sleeping outside for the past few nights, their makeshift beds propped up in an open area, their children in shock. They have no funds to rebuild their home but said the Taliban had promised help, including money.
Lawanga’s eyes were puffy and she spoke quietly. “I used a torch to search for my children, while the neighbours tried to free them from under the half-collapsed roof,” she said. “The beam of my torch landed on Basrina; I saw her first. I put my arms around her as soon as I could. She was already dead, but I couldn’t stop embracing her.”
“We’ve lost everything,” her husband said. “Under the former government, this area wasn’t safe. We saw [US and Afghan forces] airstrikes and explosions nearby. The earthquake has taken the little we had left. We’ve seen too much suffering. It’s enough.”
Aid started trickling into Gayan later on Wednesday, mostly arriving on a 10-hour drive from the capital, Kabul, with many trucks facing difficulty navigating the final stretch of the rough mountain terrain.
Shamsullah, 27, a local volunteer who goes by one name, said: “Part of the road was paved by a Lithuanian rural reconstruction team a few years ago. It was supposed to be extended to Gayan, but the Taliban attacking engineers and construction workers heading to the area made it impossible for the project to be completed.”
Now ambulances continued to carry the injured out of Gayan, bad roads or not. Severe casualties were evacuated by helicopter. “We shifted critically injured patients to hospitals in Kabul or Gardez for better treatment,” Amar said.
Mursalin Masrur’s wife was one of the injured. After sustaining a severe head injury she was flown to Kabul, where she continues to recover. Masrur, 27, a teacher at a religious madrassa in Khost province, said he was not in Gayan when the earthquake struck. He received a call from relatives in the middle of the night urging him to “come home immediately” but not to worry.
It was still dark when he started walking, eventually catching a taxi for the eight-hour ride back home. He had felt the quake’s tremors, though not severely. “I sat in the car and started panicking. Thoughts kept rushing through my head: my parents, my wife, my five-year-old only son, Halaluddin. What if my whole family was dead?”
When he finally made it to Gayan, his wife had been taken to Kabul, and his relatives were washing the dead body of his son. “I just stood there. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t even help them,” he said, pointing to the little grave that had since been dug for his child. “I want to find a memory – a piece of clothing, or one of his toys – but it’s too dangerous to enter the ruins of our house.”
Halaluddin’s mother did not yet know, he said. “I spoke to my wife briefly on the phone. She’s conscious but she wasn’t doing well. I couldn’t tell her about Halaluddin – and I’m dreading the day when I will have to tell her. We have seen so much suffering. How can she take more?”