Afghans bury dead, dig for survivors of devastating quake
Afghans stand among destruction after an earthquake in Gayan village, in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Thursday, June 23, 2022. A powerful earthquake struck a rugged, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan early Wednesday, flattening stone and mud-brick homes in the country's deadliest quake in two decades, the state-run news agency reported. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Nooroozi)

GAYAN, Afghanistan (AP) — Villagers rushed to bury the dead Thursday and dug by hand through the rubble of their homes in search of survivors of a powerful earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that state media reported killed 1,000 people. The Taliban and the international community that fled their takeover struggled to bring help to the disaster’s victims.

Under a leaden sky in Paktika province, which was the epicenter of Wednesday’s magnitude 6 earthquake, men dug a line of graves in one village, as they tried to lay the dead to rest quickly in line with Muslim tradition. In one courtyard, bodies lay wrapped in plastic to protect them from the rains that are hampering relief efforts for the living.

The state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported the death toll and said an estimated 1,500 more were injured. In the first independent count, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said around 770 people had been killed in Paktika and neighbouring Khost province.

It’s not clear how the totals were arrived at, given the difficulties of accessing and communicating with the affected villages tucked into remote mountainsides. Either grim till would make the quake Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades, and officials continued to warn the number could still rise.

The disaster heaps more misery on a country where millions already faced increasing hunger and poverty and the health system has crumbled since the Taliban retook power nearly 10 months ago amid the US and NATO withdrawal.

How the international humanitarian community, which has pulled back significant resources from the country, will be able to offer aid and to what extent the Taliban government will allow it to remain in question. The Taliban’s takeover led to a cutoff of vital international financing, and most governments remain wary of dealing directly with them.

UN agencies and other organisations still operating in Afghanistan said they sent supplies to the area, including medical kits, tents and plastic tarps, but the needs appeared immense as whole villages sustained massive damage.

Search and rescue remained a priority.

On Wednesday, a UN official said the government had not requested that the world body mobilize international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighbouring countries, despite a rare plea from the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah, for help from the world.

UN agencies are facing a $3 billion funding shortfall for Afghanistan this year, and Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, said that means there will be difficult decisions about who gets aid.

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