SHARANA, Afghanistan — As the earth shook, she said, speaking through her tears, she felt the walls of the room collapsing on her. Then everything went dark. When Hawa, a 30-year-old mother of six, regained consciousness, she was choking on dust, and struggled to make sense of the scene around her.
“I did not expect to survive,” she said on Thursday from her hospital bed in Sharana, the provincial capital of Paktika Province in Afghanistan’s southeast.
Her village, Dangal Regab, like many others in Paktika’s Geyan district, was a tableau of death and destruction in the wake of the 5.9-magnitude earthquake that struck in the early hours of Wednesday — the deadliest in Afghanistan in two decades.
A reporting team for The New York Times witnessed the scale of the devastation in Geyan on Thursday — and the magnitude of the response. On rugged unpaved roads over mountainous terrain, cars and trucks laden with supplies made their way to hillside villages that were strewn with wrecked houses. Dazed residents shuffled through the debris, using tarps to build makeshift tents and burying the dead.
Afghan officials in the hard-hit areas estimated Wednesday that at least 1,000 people had been killed and at least 1,600 injured. The United Nations’ humanitarian office on Thursday offered a slightly lower estimate — 770 people killed and 1,440 people injured — but cautioned that its figures were likely to rise.
Relief officials said the rescue effort was winding down and that they were focusing on the survivors, who had endured not only a heavy rain Wednesday but also unseasonably frigid temperatures that threatened to bring snow to some areas.
As the scale of the disaster came into focus Thursday, the supreme leader of the insular Taliban government, Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a rare plea for international help.
The earthquake added to an already dire humanitarian crisis that has engulfed Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. The banking system has largely collapsed under the weight of international sanctions, and the foreign aid that propped up public services under the previous government has vanished. Around half the country’s 39 million people are facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to the World Food Program.
The West has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency relief aid to stave off a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. But the Taliban have struggled to attract longer-term assistance from Western donors, which have balked at the new government’s restrictions on women and its human rights record.
The earthquake in Afghanistan poses a difficult new test for the Biden administration’s approach to the Taliban, which it refuses to recognize or provide with direct financial assistance after cutting off its access to $7 billion in foreign currency reserves held in the United States.
And while the United States has sent more than $1 billion directly to humanitarian programs within the country over the past year, many human rights advocates say that the U.S. government must work with the Taliban and provide the country with economic assistance to alleviate human suffering on a wide and lasting basis.
Adding to the misery, the areas hit by the earthquake along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan were among the country’s poorest even before the economic crash.
On Thursday, roads into the earthquake zone were crowded with cars and trucks loaded with relief aid: bread, flour, rice and blankets, among other things. Emergency medical workers treated the injured in ambulances as military helicopters hovered overhead.
But the stricken areas are accessible only by dirt roads that climb steep mountainsides and decline into muddy riverbeds, swollen by the recent rains.
Sacks of rice littered the road at one steep stretch — likely offloaded by drivers fearful of losing control on the descent. Nowhere in sight were excavators or other heavy equipment that would be vital to such a recovery effort.
In Azor Kalai, one of the first villages in the earthquake zone, partly destroyed mud-brick houses were scattered across the hillside — their walls collapsed and ceilings lying in pieces. Among them were the white tarps of makeshift tents, hastily erected by surviving residents as protection against the harsh elements.
As evening fell, sheep milled around and women sorted through the rubble, salvaging what they could. Standing outside what remained of his house in the brisk night air, Padshah Gul, 30, tried to assess the extent of his personal tragedy. All of the family’s belongings — pots, kettles, utensils — were still buried.
“We have to stay here, winter or spring,” he said gesturing to the makeshift tent. Still, he said, he felt lucky to be alive.
Back at the Paktika public hospital in Sharana on Thursday, survivors described horrific scenes of crumbled buildings, anguished cries for help and bodies strewn throughout a desolate moonscape.
Like Hawa, many of those survivors were facing bleak futures. Only two of her six children survived the quake. Her three sons and one daughter died, along with 17 other family members.
“I lost everything, my whole world, my whole family, I don’t have any hope for the future,” she said. “I wish I had lost everything, that we had all died, because there’s no one to take care of us, to find money or food for us now.”
Recounting the hours she spent trapped in her collapsed house, she said she could feel the chest of her 1-year-old daughter, Safia, barely moving beneath her left hand. Her other daughter cried out weakly, asking for water. Looking to where her sons had been sleeping next to her, all she saw was rubble.
She lay there for five hours, trying to protect Safia from the crushing weight, in hopes of keeping her alive. Through clouds of dust and darkness, she could make out her father desperately trying and failing to pull away rubble.
Finally, as daylight broke and the rain beat down on what remained of the town, residents of nearby villages began pouring in to mount a rescue effort, and Hawa and Safia were freed from the wreckage.
They were among the 70 to 80 survivors brought to the hospital on Wednesday, said Dr. Hikmatullah Esmat, the public health director of Paktika Province.
In another corner of the hospital ward, Gulpar Khan, 60, stood quietly looking after an injured cousin he had brought in the day before from Dangal Regab.
When the earthquake struck, the ceiling of his house caved in around him, he said. He and his 20-year-old son, Spin Wali, managed to claw their way out of the rubble, but he could hear his brother shouting for help from the room next door.
Mr. Khan said he yelled at his son to go and get help. But when his son looked out through what had been their front door, he said the entire village had been destroyed. Nearly every house had collapsed and the air was filled with a chorus of his neighbors shouting for help.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” he said. “I could never imagine such a thing in the village.”
Mr. Khan climbed to where he heard his brother’s voice and tried to peel away chunks of what had been their home as rain poured on them. His son screamed at him that it was not safe to be in that room but he did not listen, he said.
His brother survived. But 11 of his relatives — including his wife, five other sons and an uncle — were killed.
“In my whole life I never experienced anything like this,” he said.
In the men’s ward, Abdul Hanan, 70, who had brought in some injured family members, sat on a bed in the corner, staring quietly at his hands. He had escaped death by deciding to stay overnight while visiting family in a neighboring village. He was asleep Wednesday night when he heard a loud rumbling and the walls began to shake, he said.
He and his relatives ran out of the house, he said, but the damage was somewhat limited, and they were able to make their way back in and sleep until daybreak.
It was not until he began the hourlong walk back to his own home around 8 a.m. that he had an inkling of the disaster lying in wait.
The imam in a nearby mosque was making an urgent appeal for help in neighboring villages — including his own.
Rushing home, he found his house completely destroyed and four of his relatives sitting under a tree in their yard, their clothes drenched in blood. The other 17 family members who lived with him were dead beneath the rubble.
“Now there is nothing, our houses are destroyed, we have nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing,” he said, quietly wiping away tears.
“We were happy that war was over,” he added. “We were not expecting that destruction like this could happen.”
Christina Goldbaum and Safiullah Padshah reported from Sharana and Azor Kalai, in Afghanistan, and Kyle Crichton from Bondville, Vt. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.