Survivors of a series of powerful earthquakes that struck western Afghanistan on Saturday have spent a second night sleeping amid the rubble of demolished villages as they search for loved ones using shovels. The death toll is approaching 3,000, according to senior Taliban officials.
In the regional capital of Herat city people slept in public parks and streets, fearing further tremors. The United States Geological Survey reported quakes on Monday of magnitude 5.9, 4.9 and 4.7 in rural areas.“We have concerns that there may be additional casualties in that area as well,” a Taliban official said. “Our teams are currently en route to provide assistance to those affected regions.”
Saturday’s 6.3-magnitude quake – followed by eight strong aftershocks – jolted hard-to-reach areas near Herat, toppling rural homes and sending panicked city dwellers into the streets. Afghanistan is already in the grip of a humanitarian crisis, with the widespread withdrawal of foreign aid after the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, which has had a severe impact on its healthcare system. The group also has fractious relations with international aid organisations after banning women from working for the UN and NGOs.
“These past few days have been incredibly distressing. We’ve spent the last two nights in the desert, and more aftershocks keep occurring,” said Shakib, a Herat resident. “My two-year-old son is unwell and there’s nowhere to take him for medical care.”Rescuers said they had found a further 350 bodies late on Sunday after officials previously put the death toll at 2,445. Health workers said they were overwhelmed. “Vans filled with dead bodies are arriving here each minute,” said a medic at Herat hospital. “We are struggling with the very high number of injured people. I have not counted dead bodies. Our morgue is out of capacity.”
The Taliban official said some villages were being reached on Monday for the first time since the quake.“The rescue operation is still in progress. Forces from the defence ministry arrived in the area this morning and local residents are actively assisting with the operation. There are many people under the rubble and areas we have not reached yet,” he said. “At least 20 villages are completely flattened with people still under the rubble.”
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, but the Taliban – who took over the country by force two years ago – lack experience in handling natural disasters.Social media and state TV footage depict members of the Taliban’s rescue teams extracting bricks from a pile of rubble with guns slung over their shoulders and using bulldozers in devastated villages, potentially risking the lives of any survivors.
“I visited a severely affected village with some of our neighbours to assist the people in need. Taliban rescue teams were using bulldozers to remove rubble and locate survivors, but their actions unintentionally put possible survivors at risk,” Fereydon, a Herat resident, said in a telephone interview.
The International Rescue Committee warned the lack of rescue equipment could push up the death toll in western Afghanistan because trapped survivors cannot be freed.The United Nations migration agency dispatched four ambulances along with doctors and psychosocial support counsellors to the regional hospital. A minimum of three mobile health teams were en route to the Zenda Jan district, one of the hardest-hit areas.