Hours later, families were ripped apart and entire villages pulverized in an earthquake that lasted only seconds. The Taliban-run government estimates that thousands were killed, which would make it one of the worst natural disasters in Afghanistan in decades.
Nobody expected it in this part of Afghanistan, which wasn’t considered particularly earthquake-prone, said Reshma Azmi, an aid worker with CARE Afghanistan. “And nobody was prepared,” she said.
Abdulhay, a 35-year-old volunteer rescuer who was among the first to arrive at the epicenter, said the victims he pulled out of the rubble had died only inches away from their doors. Houses collapsed within seconds of the first quake, killing mostly women and children who were at home at the time, charities said after first assessments on Monday.
Amid the first reports of a powerful quake, attention had initially focused on toppled cans in supermarkets and cracks in high-rises in the nearby provincial capital of Herat. It took rescuers and local authorities hours to grasp the full scale of the damage in the more remote surroundings, where cellphone service was cut off by the quake, first responders said.
Mawlawi Mir Ahmad, a 32-year-old survivor, said emergency services arrived in his village two hours after the quake. At that point, more than 2,400 people were probably dead, according to a preliminary death toll issued by the Afghan government on Sunday. The United Nations confirmed more than 1,000 deaths, saying that hundreds are still missing.
As authorities initially appeared paralyzed, villagers used their bare hands to remove bricks while aftershocks rattled the piles of collapsed houses. Survivors’ praying and wailing was drowned out when Afghan military helicopters began to arrive at the epicenter to take survivors and bodies to Herat’s regional hospital.
Built for 600 patients, the hospital faced an influx of more than 1,500 earthquake casualties, doctors said. Many victims had to be treated on the hospital floors and in makeshift wards outside the building.
At the epicenter, the rescue effort appeared to be largely uncoordinated in the first critical hours, residents said in interviews. “There was nobody to guide the volunteers,” said Herat resident Aziz Ahmad Mehruban.
Aid efforts picked up on Sunday and intensified Monday, with several neighboring countries offering their assistance to the Afghan authorities. Pakistan’s government said it was sending thousands of tents, blankets, hygiene kits and ration bags. Iran, with a border only miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, sent a team of specialists.
Janan Saiq, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Disaster Management, said more than 30 rescue teams had been deployed by Monday afternoon, up from around a dozen on Sunday.
But Saiq appealed for more international support. “I call on the international aid organizations to help those who are impacted by the earthquake. They have no shelter and no food,” he said in a news conference.
Afghanistan has faced a shortfall in international aid this year. Donors have been distracted by other crises, including the war in Ukraine, and some have grown weary of being seen as supportive of the Afghan government or have been alienated by its policies, notably its suppression of women.
Salma Ben Aissa, the International Rescue Committee’s Afghanistan director, said more than 29 million Afghans were already in need of humanitarian assistance before the earthquake. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to address all that is happening,” she said, warning that a harsh winter could worsen the country’s humanitarian crisis.
In and around Herat, located at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, nighttime temperatures can fall as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of the year.
Mehruban said the lack of supplies to keep survivors warm was so acute on Sunday that volunteers gave away their own tents in the earthquake zone.
Siddig Ibrahim, a senior UNICEF official in the region, said survivors were still in urgent need of tents, blankets and cash and that “no commitment has been made yet to provide any of these items.”
Several aftershocks — including a 5.1-magnitude quake on Monday evening — further complicated the emergency response. At the regional Herat headquarters of the World Vision charity, employees had to be sent home after multiple quakes on Monday, national director Thamindri De Silva said in an interview.
De Silva had to briefly interrupt the interview when a new aftershock struck the charity’s building in the evening. Equipment rattled in the background.
“The children of our families are completely traumatized,” she said, once the aftershock had subsided. “Kids as young as 3 are saying: ‘I don’t want to go home.’”
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.