Barren ground and open spaces are being turned into mass graves in the western Afghan city of Herat, where survivors of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country at the weekend face the grim task of burying the dead.
The powerful quake that struck on Saturday killed at least 2,400 people and injured about 2,000 others, according to Taliban officials.
In Zinda Jan district, 40km from Herat city and one of the worst-hit areas, survivors and volunteers said they were using bulldozers to hollow out the earth and bury hundreds of victims.
“There are so many [graves] now, rows and rows of them,” Madina Jamil, a resident of Herat city who is volunteering in Zinda Jan, told The National.
“Entire families got wiped out. In some cases, 10 or even 15 members of one family were found dead.
“It is a tragic sight to pull out people from under the rubble and then bury them again."
The UN estimates that 1,023 people were killed and 1,663 people injured in Zinda Jan.
Digging for survivors
With the rescue work still ongoing three days after the earthquake, people are hoping to find survivors under collapsed houses.
“I have been in Zinda Jan since Saturday and the death toll is mounting. But there are still people trapped under the rubble and the efforts are on to find and save them. People are using their bare hands, bulldozers and shovels,” Ms Jamil said.
According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), all homes are believed to have been destroyed in Zinda Jan.
Bibi Gul, 47, a father of eight children aged between four and 18, said his house collapsed in the quake and they have nowhere to sleep.
“I was on my way to the market when the first quake hit. My wife and kids ran out of the house and luckily they survived,” Mr Gul, a street seller, told The National.
“It happened within seconds. There is not a single house standing in our neighbourhood.”
He said they had to wait for hours to get any help because of heavy aftershocks.
“People were scared to move as the earth was shaking violently each time,” he said.
According to the US Geological Survey, the quake’s epicentre was about 40km north-west of Herat. Three strong aftershocks, measuring magnitude 6.3, 5.9 and 5.5, as well as lesser shocks, followed.
Desperate need for aid
Volunteers on the ground said they were in acute shortage of food, blankets, tents, drinking water and medicine.
“This is the worst I have seen, when we reached Herat on Saturday with a group of volunteers," said Abdul Rahman, who runs the local Pohana Rana Foundation.
"We brought whatever we could from the market – blankets, milk powder, clothes. But it is like a drop in the ocean.”
The cash-strapped country is reeling under one of the biggest economic and humanitarian crises since the Taliban takeover in 2021 when humanitarian aid was stopped.
Billions of US dollars in Afghan central bank reserves remain frozen overseas and sanctions hamper the banking sector, with the West pushing for concessions on human rights.
The UAE on Tuesday sent a plane carrying 33 tonnes of urgent food supplies.
Pakistan and China have also promised to extend all possible support to the recovery effort.
The Taliban-appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdul Ghani Baradar, and his team visited the quake-affected region on Monday to deliver relief assistance and ensure “equitable and accurate distribution of aid”, AP reported.
Afghans are still reeling from previous disasters, including the 6.5 magnitude earthquake in March that struck much of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and another in eastern Afghanistan in June 2022, that killed at least 1,000 people.
Afghans in UAE offer support
The UAE-based Afghan community is reeling with shock and sorrow and many have spoken about the emotional turmoil of watching their war-ravaged country facing another natural disaster.
Mohammed Nasser, 28, who works as a waiter at Afghani Kabab in Dubai, told The National he watched the heart-rending images and reports coming from his homeland with shock and helplessness.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the news and scale of devastation,” said Mr Nasser, who is from Kabul.
“My family is in Afghanistan and I called them immediately. It was the most terrifying feeling. Thankfully they are safe as the earthquake happened in Herat city."
He said the Afghan people are coming together to offer assistance to those affected by the earthquake.
“Many poor people died or are injured. I have a friend who is a well-known YouTuber and went to Herat to help the people. I heard many individuals have already started donation drives and humanitarian initiatives to support relief efforts,” he added.
Majeed Khan, 32, an Afghan based in Sharjah, told The National the community in the UAE are determined to do their part to support those at home during the crisis.
"Our hearts go out to the victims and their families in Afghanistan. I'm trying donate money to a friend in Herat to support in any way I can,” Mr Khan said.
“There are people on the ground gathering essential supplies to the affected areas. It was a strong earthquake and many lost their loved ones.”