Afghanistan earthquake: Death toll hits 2K as survivors search for victims in rubble

Afghan residents clear debris as they look for victims bodies in the rubble of damaged houses after the earthquakes in Siah Ab village, Zendeh Jan district of Herat province on Oct. 8, 2023. (Photo by MOHSEN KARIMI/AFP via Getty Images)

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 out bodies.

Living and dead, victims were trapped under rubble, their faces grey with dust.

"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.

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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, flattened 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.

Abdul Wahid Rayan, a spokesman at the Ministry of Information and Culture, said Sunday the death toll is higher than originally reported. Villages have been destroyed, and hundreds of civilians are buried under the debris, he said while calling for urgent help.

"Besides the 2,060 dead, 1,240 people are injured and 1,320 houses are completely destroyed," said Rayan. 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.