Afghan communities reel after powerful quakes, dig out dead and injured from rubble

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Men dug through rubble with their bare hands and shovels in western Afghanistan Sunday in desperate attempts to pull victims from the wreckage left by powerful earthquakes that killed at least 2,000 people.

Entire villages were flattened, bodies were trapped under collapsed houses and locals waited for help without even shovels to dig people out.

Living and dead, victims were trapped under rubble, their faces grey with dust. A government spokesman said Sunday that hundreds were still trapped, more than 1,000 hurt and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.

WATCH: News Wrap: Deadly earthquakes strike villages in western Afghanistan

“Most people were shocked … some couldn’t even talk. But there were others who couldn’t stop crying and shouting,” photographer Omid Haqjoo, who visited four villages Sunday, told The Associated Press by phone from Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, Herat.

Saturday’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit a densely populated area near Herat. It was followed by strong aftershocks.

Death toll from Afghanistan's Herat earthquakes shoots up to 2,000

A series of strong earthquakes jolted western Afghanistan with the epicenter 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) northwest of the city of Herat. Image by Omar Zaghloul/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Taliban government spokesman on Sunday provided the toll that, if confirmed, would make it one of the deadliest earthquakes to strike the country in two decades.

An earthquake that hit eastern Afghanistan in June 2022, striking a rugged, mountainous region, wiped out stone and mud-brick homes and killed at least 1,000 people.

People in Herat freed a baby girl from a collapsed building after she was buried up to her neck in debris. A hand cradled the baby’s torso as rescuers eased the child out of the ground. Rescuers said it was the baby’s mother. It was not clear if the mother survived. The video was shared online and verified by The Associated Press.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake’s epicenter was about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Herat. It was followed by three very strong aftershocks, measuring magnitude 6.3, 5.9 and 5.5, as well as lesser shocks.

With much of the world wary of dealing directly with the Taliban government and focused on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Afghanistan hasn’t received an immediate global response. Almost 36 hours after the first earthquake hit Herat province, there have been no planes of aid flying in, no specialists.

Aid agencies and nongovernmental groups have appealed for the international community to come forward but only a handful of countries have publicly offered support, neighboring China and Pakistan among them.

The International Rescue Committee warned that the lack of rescue equipment could push up the death toll in western Afghanistan because trapped survivors cannot be freed.

“There’s not much disaster management capacity and what there is can’t cover people on the ground,” said Salma Ben Aissa, the committee’s country director for Afghanistan. “The numbers (of dead) are increasing hour by hour.”

People injured in the quake on Saturday can’t get the treatment they need because of poor medical infrastructure so they are losing their lives. A lack of food, shelter and clean water are increasing the health risks among communities.

Ben Aissa’s colleague, Jawed Niamati, said Herat city is empty. People are sleeping in the open air, on roadsides and in parks, because they fear more quakes. Temperatures drop to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) at night, he said.

The world rushed in aid after an earthquake rocked Syria and Turkey this year, killing tens of thousands of people.

Abdul Wahid Rayan, a spokesman at the Ministry of Information and Culture, said Sunday that hundreds of civilians were buried under the debris in Herat, and he called for urgent help.

At least a dozen teams have been scrambled to help with rescue efforts, including from the military and nonprofit organizations like the Red Crescent.

The United Nations migration agency deployed four ambulances with doctors and psychosocial support counselors to the regional hospital. At least three mobile health teams were on their way to the Zenda Jan district, which is one of the worst-hit areas.

Doctors Without Borders set up five medical tents at Herat Regional Hospital to accommodate up to 80 patients. Authorities have treated more than 300 patients, according to the agency. UNICEF dispatched thousands of supplies, including winter clothes, blankets and tarpaulins as temperatures dropped.

Irfanullah Sharafzai, a spokesman for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said seven teams were busy with rescue efforts while others were arriving from eight nearby provinces. They set up a temporary camp for the displaced, Sharafzai said.

Some aid groups, like the World Food Program, were already on the scene with essential items.

Later Sunday, people from surrounding villages brought equipment to support rescue efforts.

The first quake was the strongest, causing the most damage and casualties, photographer Haqjoo said, quoting survivors.

Save the Children said the scale of the damage was horrific. “The numbers affected by this tragedy are truly disturbing – and those numbers will rise as people are still trapped in the rubble of their homes in Herat,” said the aid group’s country director for Afghanistan, Arshad Malik. “This is a crisis on top of a crisis. Even before this disaster, children were suffering from a devastating lack of food.”

He called for an “urgent injection” of money from the international community.

Neighboring Pakistan said it was in contact with Afghan authorities to get an assessment of the urgent needs.

China’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, said his government and the country’s charitable institutions were ready to provide all kinds of help. “We are in contact with Afghan government aid agencies to provide aid to the needy,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Afghan cricket star Rashid Khan is donating all his Cricket World Cup fees to help Herat’s earthquake survivors. “Soon, we will be launching a fundraising campaign to call upon those who can support the people in need,” he told his 1.9 million followers on X.

Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Takashi Okada, expressed his condolences on the social media platform X, saying he was “deeply grieved and saddened to learn the news of earthquake in Herat province.”

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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