Race to reach Afghanistan quake survivors

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The Independent Online
THE HARSH mountain terrain of northern Afghanistan echoed to the throbbing of United Nations and Red Cross helicopters yesterday, as the international effort to bring relief to the victims of Saturday's enormous earthquake got under way.

With dozens of villages more or less destroyed, and some of them completely buried, it is feared that at least 3,000 people have already died. Now the race is on to reach survivors in the far-flung and inaccessible communities affected, and ferry them to local hospitals or makeshift clinics set up by the relief organisations.

The force of the quake sent houses roaring down mountainsides into the valleys below. There are estimates of up to 80 villages heavily damaged, and another dozen obliterated.

Aftershocks lingered in the region yesterday, sending frightened residents scrambling outdoors. Many people are refusing to return to homes still standing, said Sarah Russell, a United Nations spokesperson in neighbouring Pakistan.

"The aftershocks that continue to shudder through the region, sometimes only minutes apart, keep people from moving back into their houses and remind a population already traumatised ... that another could easily strike," she said.

In Chaujan, a village near the quake's epicentre, thousands of homes were flattened. People wandered through the rubble, dazed. In the middle of the devastation, a lone wooden door stood erect.

The International Red Cross and the UN scrambled to establish mobile medical units in Shari Basurkh, about 50km (30 miles), from Faizabad, the capital of northern Badakhshan province. Many of the wounded loaded onto helicopters were elderly and small children.

Cargo aircraft from neighbouring Pakistan, packed with emergency supplies, reached the region yesterday.

As relief workers reach the hardest hit areas, they have begun worrying about the risk of diseases like malaria, because of the rain, Ms Russell said. Other health hazards include hemmhoragic fever and cholera, she said.

The French Foreign Ministry planned to send about 35 tons of humanitarian aid to nearby Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where it will be transported to the disaster area.

Soldiers hostile to the Taliban regime in Kabul, who control the stricken region, say they have removed 1,650 bodies, but they said thousands more people are dead.

When a huge earthquake hit the same area in February, the relief organisations were unable, due to freezing temperatures and ferocious storms, to reach the area for five days. This time around they were on the spot almost at once. Much of the logistical support set up in February was still in place - and many of the villagers were still rebuilding mud huts damaged or demolished in February.

Cargo planes brought tents, food, medicines and other supplies to the airport in the town of Faizabad, and from there helicopters took off to bring supplies to the stricken villages, and pick up casualties, many suffering broken limbs. The only roads in the region are rough tracks, impassable by motor vehicles even at the best of times, suitable only for camels and mountain ponies. Many of these have in any case been destroyed by the earthquake.

Both earthquakes occurred between the towns of Faizabad and Rostaq. The events in February were particularly calamitous because the earthquake struck at night, when the villagers were all indoors. Saturday's quake occurred during the day, when most people were working in the fields, and in the height of summer. But the earthquake, which measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck an area twice as large as that affected in February, and inhabited by twice as many people. February's disaster left about 4,000 people dead; Saturday's may turn out to have been even more fatal.

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