KABUL, Afghanistan – A powerful 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook eastern Afghanistan overnight, causing homes of mud-brick and cinder block to collapse over sleeping families, adding a new emergency to a country that has already endured much suffering.
The Taliban’s state-run news agency reported more than 920 people were killed and more than 600 more injured. They cited the deputy state minister for natural disaster management, Mawlavi Sharfuddin Muslim. It was not possible to immediately confirm that number, because the earthquake hit remote areas.
Giving a sense of the scale of destruction, the Bakhtar News Agency uploaded the video of an unnamed man whose cellphone swung around to catch homes crumpled in the morning light.
“I’m doing this video to show that all people here are under the building,” he says. “Under that house, five people. This house, six people.” He turns to another pile of rubble: “And in this house, 13 dead bodies still under,” he says. Swinging his camera further up the hill, he says, “All the village completely is destroyed.”
An image shared by the news agency showed men extracting what appeared to be a small body wrapped in a blanket out of the rubble, one man lighting the scene with what appeared to a small flashlight clenched between his teeth. A later video showed men lying on gurneys amid the rubble.
The hardest hit areas were remote farming villages in the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost – so remote that Afghan authorities dispatched seven helicopters and a medical team to help with the rescue mission.
Those provinces border the rugged mountains of northwest Pakistan. A legislator who represents one of those neighboring Pakistani districts, Mohsin Dawar, shared images with NPR that showed homes strewn in piles of rubble. He said so far, it was unclear what happened to the men, women and children who had been sleeping in them.
Taliban officials expressed their condolences and called on Afghans to help each other — and many are doing so. The Afghan Red Crescent society said on Twitter that it was dispatching aid to affected areas.
Men have turned up in neighboring unaffected areas to donate blood at local medical centers, said UNICEF’s Afghanistan communication chief Samantha Mort.
She said the U.N. agency was also helping: “We’ve got people on the ground who are distributing blankets and and hygiene kits. We’ve got several mobile health and nutrition teams on the way to administer first aid to those who are injured.”
She added the disaster has struck a country already shaken by so many hardships. “This is a population that is deeply impoverished, where there is high unemployment, where they are suffering from the worst drought in 37 years. There’s also a chronic malnutrition crisis,” she said. “We’re seeing outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles and acute watery diarrhea.”
The United Nations has been struggling to raise enough money to cover its needs for this year – which include helping to feed nearly half of Afghanistan’s population of forty million people.
But the Secretary General’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov, said on Twitter that they were “assessing the needs” of the victims of the earthquake, adding that a response was on its way.
The quake originated just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) below the Earth’s surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Shallow depths like that often bring a greater risk for damage, because the energy from such quakes doesn’t dissipate as much as it moves toward the surface.
Strike-slip faulting likely triggered the earthquake, the USGS says, citing the pattern of powerful waves radiating from its epicenter. Earthquakes in the region are caused by an ongoing massive collision, as the India tectonic plate pushes northward into the Eurasia plate.
The quake hit roughly 300 miles from where an even stronger temblor struck in western Pakistan in 2008, sparking landslides and killing 166 people.
Hadid reported from Islamabad; Qazizai reported from Kabul; Chappell reported from Washington. NPR’s Ayana Archie contributed to this report.
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As if Afghanistan had not already suffered enough, an earthquake struck overnight. It struck remote areas that may take time to reach, but already Afghan state media say 900 people are dead. NPR’s Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A man swings around the camera on his mobile phone in the early light in a video shared by the Taliban’s state-run news agency, Bakhtar. The man shows one collapsed house, then two, then three.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: NPR’s Kabul producer Fazelminallah Qazizai translates.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I’m doing this video to show that all people here are under the buildings. In that house, five people are under the building. In this house, six people and in this house, 15 dead bodies still under there. And up there, all the village completely destroyed.
HADID: It’s not yet clear how many villages were shaken, how many homes were flattened, or the fate of the men, women and children who had been sleeping within them. The worst-affected areas are so hard to reach, the Taliban dispatched rescue workers by helicopters. Another image shared by Bakhtar News Agency showed men extracting what appeared to be a small body, wrapped in a blanket, out of the rubble. UNICEF says it’s helping.
SAMANTHA MORT: We’ve got people on the ground who are distributing blankets and hygiene kits. We’ve got several mobile health and nutrition teams on the way to administer first aid to those who are injured.
HADID: Samantha Mort is Afghanistan’s UNICEF spokeswoman. She says this is a country already struck by so many hardships.
MORT: This is a population that is deeply impoverished, where there is high unemployment, where they are suffering from, you know, the worst drought in 37 years. There’s also a chronic malnutrition crisis.
HADID: The United Nations is already struggling to raise enough money to cover its needs for this year. Now they’ll need more.
Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.