Afghan authorities are struggling to reach a remote area hit by an earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people as poor communications and a lack of proper roads hampered their efforts, officials said.
“We can’t reach the area, the networks are too weak, we trying to get updates,” Mohammad Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in hardest-hit Paktika province, told Reuters news agency on Thursday, referring to telephone networks.
Survivors dug by hand through villages reduced to rubble by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake that struck early on Wednesday about 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan.
The quake was Afghanistan’s deadliest in 20 years, and officials said the toll could rise. An estimated 1,500 others were reported injured.
Access to the affected eastern provinces of Khost and Paktika has been hampered by road blocks due to the earthquake as well as prior landslides from recent heavy rains.
In Paktika’s hard-hit Gayan district, villagers stood atop a pile of mud bricks that once were a home. Others carefully walked through dirt alleyways, gripping onto damaged walls with exposed timber beams to make their way.
Survivors quickly prepared the district’s dead, including children and an infant, for burial.
“We ask the Islamic emirate and the whole country to come forward and help us,” a survivor, who gave his name as Hakimullah, told The Associated Press. “We are with nothing and have nothing, not even a tent to live in.”
Atiqullah Bahram, a resident of Paktika province, told Al Jazeera that more than 30 villages had been completely destroyed in Gayan.
“I have visited some families that lost everyone except a child or an old man. There were six or seven families who lost all their members,” he said.
Helicopters were used to reach the injured and deliver urgent medical supplies and food provisions. Authorities confirmed 1,800 households have been destroyed.
Sultan Mahmood, Spera district’s chief, told Al Jazeera that 29 people have been killed in the area, 42 injured and 500 homes have been destroyed, with the remote village of Afghan-Dubai being hit the hardest.
The Taliban government has appealed for international aid. Most aid agencies pulled out of the country and many governments imposed sanctions on Afghanistan’s banking sector and cut billions of dollars worth of aid after the Taliban took control in August last year.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the foreign affairs ministry’s spokesperson, told a press conference that “entire villages have been razed to the ground”.
“Despite the sanctions that have been imposed by the international community, the government has done whatever it can in its capacity and the Afghan Red Crescent has immediately dispatched emergency aid to the area, along with the Turkish Red Crescent and other agencies,” Balkhi said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that eight trucks of food and other necessities from Pakistan arrived in Paktika. He also said on Thursday that two planes of humanitarian aid from Iran and another from Qatar had arrived in the country.
Neil Turner, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Afghanistan, said in a statement that Taliban authorities had granted humanitarian agencies full access to affected areas.
However, according to Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN deputy special representative to Afghanistan, the Taliban did not formally request that the UN mobilise international search-and-rescue teams or obtain equipment from neighbouring countries.
Many international aid agencies are wary of dealing directly with the Taliban due to sweeping international sanctions, while others have left Afghanistan altogether after the Taliban takeover last August.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Latifi, reporting from the Paktika province, said World Food Programme (WFP) trucks could be seen heading to affected areas as well as convoys from other international organisations, but that poor weather conditions on Wednesday had prevented much of the aid from reaching people in need.
At the Paktika regional hospital, badly injured patients were being turned away. “The Paktika regional hospital still lacks very important resources,” Latifi said. “For instance, they don’t have a helicopter, so patients have to be sent to Kabul by road,” a journey that takes on average five hours.
The United States on Wednesday expressed sorrow and said it would look for ways to help, including through potential talks with Taliban rulers.
“President Biden is monitoring developments and has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess US response options to help those most affected,” Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said.
The Khost province, one of the most affected by the earthquake, is home to thousands of internally displaced Afghans, returnees, and refugees from Waziristan who had already been displaced.
The death toll reported as of Thursday was equal to that of a quake in 2002 in northern Afghanistan. Those are the deadliest since 1998, when an earthquake of 6.1 in magnitude and subsequent tremors in the remote northeast killed at least 4,500 people.
Farooq Jan Mangal contributed reporting from Khost, Afghanistan.