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Over 90% of those killed in Afghan quakes are women and children, UNICEF says, as new temblor hits country

More than 90% of those killed in a series of earthquakes in western Afghanistan were women and children, UNICEF said Wednesday, as fresh tremors terrorized residents of villages flattened by the disaster.

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit at dawn around 19 miles north of Herat city — the latest in a series of quakes that have left thousands homeless since the weekend.

In total, more than 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds more injured, the Afghan government said Wednesday, revising down an earlier toll of over 2,000.

The brunt of fatalities was borne by women and children when the first magnitude 6.3 quake hit Saturday around 11:00 am, said Herat-based UNICEF field officer Siddig Ibrahim.

"Women and children are often at home, tending to the household and caring for children, so when structures collapse, they are the most at risk," he said in a statement.

Forty-year-old Mohammad Naeem told AFP he lost 12 relatives, including his mother, after Saturday's earthquakes.

"We can't live here anymore. You can see, our family got martyred here. How could we live here?"

Aftermath of the earthquake in Afghanistan
People mourn near dead bodies of their relatives as the search operation for the bodies and those who remained under the rubble continues at Blackwater village in Zendeh Jan district in Herat, Afghanistan, on Oct. 9, 2023. Mirwais Amir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Afghanistan's hospitals, already over-stretched and severely under-equipped in the wake of the Taliban's chaotic seizure of the country, were quickly overwhelmed.

"Many of our family members have been martyred, including one of my sons," Mir Ahmed told CBS News.

He added that another of his sons was injured. "Most of the people are under the rubble."

"A very difficult process"

At least one person was killed and around 130 injured in the latest quake on Wednesday, according to officials.

Some of the wounded were hit by the debris of already destroyed homes, said Abdul Zahir Noorzai, ambulance manager for Herat Regional Hospital.

Thirty-two-year-old Abdul Qudos said survivors were left terrified by the multiple aftershocks.

"We are so scared that even when we see the trees moving (in the wind), we think it's another earthquake coming," he told AFP.

Earthquakes are frequent in Afghanistan and in the west and centre of the country are mostly caused by the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates jutting against each other.

Public health minister Qalandar Ebad attributed the confusion over fatality figures to the remoteness of the area and double reporting during the rescue effort.

"When whole villages are destroyed and populations erased... verifying the affected and martyred people, and the number of wounded, is a very difficult process," he said, adding that 2,400 had been injured.

Volunteers have been digging for survivors and bodies from the earlier quakes which totally destroyed at least six villages in rural Zenda Jan district and affected more than 12,000 people, the United Nations said.

Providing shelter on a large scale will be a challenge for Afghanistan's Taliban authorities, who seized power in August 2021, and have fractious relations with international aid organizations.

While the U.N. pledged to provide help and a number of nations lined up to offer additional aid, a number of international aid agencies pulled out of Afghanistan or greatly reduced their operations after the Taliban's summer 2021 takeover of the country.

"That area is very cold, staying there after the evening is very difficult," said minister Ebad. "We know they could live there in tents for one month, but more than that would probably be very difficult."

Most homes in rural Afghanistan are made of mud and built around wooden support poles, with little in the way of steel or concrete reinforcement.

Multi-generational extended families generally live under the same roof, meaning serious earthquakes can devastate communities.

Afghanistan is already suffering a dire humanitarian crisis, with the widespread withdrawal of foreign aid following the Taliban's return to power.

Herat province, on the border with Iran, is home to around 1.9 million people, and its rural communities have already been suffering from a years-long drought.

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