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Country of the Dead

March 27, 2002

International relief efforts are getting under way after a series of earthquakes shook Afghanistan on Monday. Officials say well over 2,000 people have died, thousands are injured. But the numbers could be much higher.

Another casualty?Image: AP

This was the last thing that Afghanistan needed.

Struggling to get back on its feet after the devastation wreaked by long years of fighting, Monday's earthquake has been a major setback to the country.

The death toll rose sharply on Wednesday as fresh aftershocks struck northern villages in the Hindukush mountains.

Afghan government officials who talked on Tuesday of around 2,000 dead, now believe that the casualties could be much higher.

Quakes late on Monday and on Tuesday morning flattened the market town of Nahrin, home to over 80,000. Thousands have fled the area in fear and settled in arid plains and mountains without food, water or shelter.

International aid need of the hour

As the dust settles over the ruined villages, the interim government in Afghanistan has made a frantic appeal for international help, saying it is beyond their capacity to cope with the present crisis.

And this time unlike the much-publicised shaky donor conferences for reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, which yielded several promises but little actual monetary aid, the international community has been quick to react.

UN aid agencies have rushed thousands of blankets and tents as well as food and clothes to the affected area. Russia has promised a mobile clinic and has also offered the use of an Antonov airplane to fly supplies into nearby Kunduz airport.

The UN children's agency UNICEF said it was sending in 70 tonnes of supplies including food, medicine, children's clothing, soap and cooking gear.

The UN World Food Program has also agreed to provide three helicopters to fly in relief items and medical personnel.

To add to it a host of lesser-known aid and humanitarian relief agencies have been active for several months in Afghanistan, working to reconstruct infrastructure and provide safe drinking water and food for the war-weary population.

These agencies, which include several German, French, British and American ones have now rushed to the earthquake-hit area with essentials and expertise.

The British-led International Security Force (ISAF) in the Afghan capital of Kabul dispatched a Chinook helicopter to Nahrin on Tuesday bearing reconnaissance teams from the ISAF, aid agencies, Britain's international development department and representatives of the Afghan interim government.

Despite aid, nature plays spoil-sport

Erdbeben in Afghanistan
An Afghan man looks over the devastation of his neighborhood, Wednesday, March 27, 2002, after the earthquake in Nahrin, Afghanistan. A powerful earthquake devastated villages in the Hindu Kush mountains of northern Afghanistan, where Afghan officials initially estimated up to 1,800 people had died in a region already hard-hit by drought, war and food shortages. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)Image: AP

But despite the outpouring of international help and relief, tragically aid efforts have been hampered by the aftershocks and the appalling road conditions.

The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that two of the three roads leading to the area had been blocked by quake damage.

Traffic from Kabul to the quake-hot zone has also slowed to a crawl after two trucks overturned in the high-altitude Salang tunnel.

Worse, the area, a battlefield during years of conflict between the Northern Alliance opposition and the Taliban, has been so heavily mined that rescuers can only search painstakingly slowly in the rubble for survivors.