Hundreds killed, thousands injured in Afghan quakes

Temblors devastate area stricken by war, hunger and drought

March 27, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - A series of earthquakes flattened towns and villages in Afghanistan's mountainous northeast yesterday, killing hundreds of people, injuring thousands and leaving entire communities homeless.

The towns of Nahrin and Shar-i-Kuna, in Baghlan province about 100 miles north of Kabul, were "almost completely destroyed," said Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

There were contradictory estimates of the death toll, with Afghan officials saying the figure had reached 1,800 by yesterday afternoon but an independent aid agency lowering the figure to 600 early today. Kabul television said 5,000 people were injured.

About 80,000 people live in the area, most of them in villages consisting of mud-brick compounds built on steep mountain slopes. The region was already devastated by drought, hunger and fighting last year against the Taliban. Many residents were refugees waiting to return to their homes.

The strongest tremors, which occurred about 7 p.m. Monday and 2 a.m. yesterday, leveled Nahrin.

"The whole city of Nahrin has been completely destroyed," said Yusuf Nuristani, a government spokesman. "If you were there, you would see rubble, destroyed houses and lots of displaced people, chaos."

Survivors will not get swift medical attention because their villages lack electricity and telephones, and road links are primitive. Some victims remain trapped beneath the rubble of their homes. Aid officials said the death toll is almost certain to rise.

It was the third series of tremors to strike northern Afghanistan since February, but these quakes caused by far the most injuries and damage. Aid officials who have flown over the area report "utter devastation," Hassan said.

Ehsan A. Zahine, of the French aid group ACTED, said his agency's office in Nahrin was destroyed by the earthquake.

"It just collapsed completely," he said.

Aftershocks continued through the night, with the last felt around 2 p.m. yesterday.

A villager who made it to an ACTED office in the town of Pul-e-Kumri, between Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, said he had come from a village where 80 percent of the residents were dead. General Khalil, a military commander from Pul-e-Kumri, said rescue workers lack enough helicopters to transport the injured.

In Kabul, hanging lamps swung, windowpanes rattled and people ran from shaking buildings.

Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan's interim government, planned to visit the devastated region today, Nuristani said.

The government allocated the equivalent of $600,000 for immediate emergency assistance, and pledged $147 to families of those killed and $88 for families who suffered injuries, Nuristani said.

"The administration is doing the best it can," said Mira Jan, an Afghan Defense Ministry official. "We asked [peacekeepers]and all other humanitarian nongovernmental organizations to help the people there because they lost everything. They need tents, medicines, everything."

The French group Doctors Without Borders arrived to help treat the wounded. A helicopter belonging to the peacekeepers flew to the area last night, carrying medicine and communications gear.

ACTED dispatched 2,000 tents and 1,000 blankets to Nahrin and Shar-e-Kuna, and the World Food Program sent 158 tons of food to the region.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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