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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 13:14 GMT
Six Forum: The earthquake in Afghanistan
You put your questions about the aid and rescue effort to the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Kabul, in a live forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

  Click here to watch the forum.  

The number of people killed in the earthquake disaster in northern Afghanistan has risen sharply after fresh aftershocks in the region.

Government officials had previously talked of about 2,000 deaths from a series of earthquakes which flattened the market town of Nahrin and affected 40 nearby villages in the remote province of Baghlan.

They now say the death toll could be far more than 2,000 and is going to go up dramatically as they dig through rubble in Nahrin and reach outlying villages.

The United Nations has asked peacekeeping troops to provide aircraft to fly in emergency aid.

What are the most urgent needs for the people of the region? What are the dangers facing aid and rescue teams?


Manisha Tank:

Sarah UK: What is the death toll? What are the worst-hit areas and what are the present conditions there?

Caroline Wyatt:

We've travelled to the epicentre of the earthquake today with Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, who was also taking with him some aid workers. Talking to people on the ground there who were trying to help the affected and injured, they say that so far 800 bodies have been buried but that is from the town of Nahrin alone, so the epicentre of the earthquake. But there are more outlying villages - about 14 of the them that have also been affected but which are much harder for the aid workers to get through to because the earthquake has meant that the roads have become blocked with boulders - there's also landmines in the area. So it could be that the death toll may still go up.

One of the main problems is there are about 3,000 people injured. Slowly they have been able to get medical help, as aid workers and doctors have flown in - they have now got medicine for the worst injured. But also, and most crucially, there are something like 20,000 people who've been left homeless there. So they are starting to get tents and shelter because it gets bitterly cold at night.

Manisha Tank:

Sally, UK: Is there a possibility of further tremors? And what is the risk of malnutrition or disease?

Caroline Wyatt:

Yes absolutely. While we were there this afternoon there was a massive aftershock that measured about 5 on the Richter scale. People were running, they were terrified, they were scared and with good reason because the houses, already ruined, - the walls that were still left standing - were starting to tumble down on top of the road and so people were simply running away.

I think one of the good things, if you can say that out of all of this, is that because these were one-storey buildings families were in many, many cases able to escape alive, although injured, they also knew who was left inside so they could drag people out if they were still alive. They were also able to clear away the bodies to give them a decent burial very quickly. That should help to stop disease spreading because often it's when you can't to bodies underneath the rubble that it does begin to spread.

These were people already relying on food aid so there is a certainly a case that some of the children are already malnourished. A lot of them were refugees, having fled from the war and the drought that's affected that area. But there is a health survey being done at the moment by the World Health Organisation and the BBC's own Persian and Pashtu service will be broadcasting health information - how people can avoid getting infection in those areas under the earthquake and how they need to drink clean water, make sure they try and wash their hands before they eat - so that information is also going out to people there.

Manisha Tank:

Masaharu Y, Tokyo, Japan: After the earthquake and the bombing, what are the displaced people living in at this time? Are they in refuges now? And are they safe?

Caroline Wyatt:

It varies a lot from region to region. Where the earthquake hit was a place that had been very much one of the battle grounds of the conflict between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance so it was a place that was littered by landmines and a lot of people had fled their farms and their homes there and had taken shelter in refugee camps in outlying areas.

In Afghanistan itself there are still a lot of displaced people who haven't yet managed to go back home - either because they don't have the transport or they don't have the money or because they fled to places outside such as Iran or Pakistan and they don't know what they're going to be coming home to. But there has been in recent weeks a massive move of people coming back in from outside the country - something like 90,000 people in the last couple of weeks are trying to go back to their homes. But quite often when they get there they find that there is very, very little left - that where they were living has simply been reduced to rubble. So on the whole they try and find families to take shelter with or they also rely on western aid agencies here who give them tents and who try and give them a starter pack of food, medicine, seeds they can sow, so they can start to become self-reliant again.

Manisha Tank:

Mark, Scotland: What sort of aid is needed? What is coming in?

Gemma, Yorkshire, England: What sort of obstacles are the relief workers facing?

Caroline Wyatt:

It is a very, very difficult job for the relief workers themselves bringing in this aid. We've travelled on roads today where we know they are landmines alongside - that's something relief workers face every day. The Halo Trust from Britain is one of those working to remove those landmines - especially from arable and farming land to make it possible for people here to become self-reliant. They are a very, very determined people and those who come back - even though they found their homes destroyed have done their best to start rebuilding. So the main thing the aid agencies here need to bring to them is the cash to buy, locally as far as they can, the material for tents, the material for shelter and the equipment you need to rebuild those homes.

Manisha Tank:

Matthew Bramell, Sheffield, UK: You've obviously spent a lot of time in Afghanistan since September 11th. How have you coped with seeing so many people hurt and killed - especially with the recent earthquake and the minor after shock that happened while you were filming?

Caroline Wyatt:

That today was absolutely petrifying. I have seen other earthquakes. I was in Bhuj in India in the aftermath of that earthquake and in Turkey a few years ago. But I've never had it as close to home as that. We were simply filming by a building when it started to collapse. It just gave us perhaps a tiny hint of what the people there felt on Monday night - sheer terror as they sat in their homes.

When you see how these people have to live, the years of hardship they've had to endure, you can only admire them for the spirit for the endurance that they show every day getting up again trying to rebuild their lives. Also staying together very much as families - there is a lot of self-help here - people within their families will do all they can, they'll also do the best for their neighbours as well - a real sense of community spirit.

The most tragic thing here is - as we saw in the north - how many have had to leave their own land. So people who were farmers before have come back to find nothing. A lot of the young boys took up arms and became soldiers because there was no other alternative, there was no jobs for them. Seeing that coming from a western culture has been an incredible lesson about how important it is to us in the West to come and help them - to give aid, to give money, to give teaching - all of that so that this country can take care of itself which it would very much like to.

Manisha Tank:

But while Afghanistan is beginning to get back on its feet, we know that the military activity continues and a lot of our viewers have written in about that. A couple of e-mails now that reflect a long list of them. Pete in Romania: It was only a matter of time before such calamity would occur, as the United States has been testing their new weapons of mass destruction in a very fragile environment.

Tony Kenny, UK: What is the likelihood of the recent bombing contributing towards these quakes?

Caroline Wyatt:

It is a very, very interesting question and I honestly don't know the answer. I think you'd have to ask a seismologist or a weapons expert. Clearly there has been a lot of bombing and that has devastated a lot of the regions, especially the mountains and caves where al-Qaeda and the Taleban were hiding out. But I have to say this has always been a region prone to earthquakes just by the nature of its geography and geology. It's between tectonic plates that are shifting all the time and this is by no means the worst earthquake they've seen - they had several devastating ones in the 1980s which perhaps we reported less of and perhaps we knew less about simply because we weren't reporting Afghanistan so much at the time. So this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Manisha Tank:

Andrew Gossage, UK: To what extent are the emerging disaster relief plans hampering the international military operations against al-Qaeda?

Caroline Wyatt:

The international military operations are clearly continuing at the moment - though we do know that some members of ISF, the International Security Force, which includes British soldiers here, have also been helping out with the aftermath of the earthquake. I know that two British engineers went up to the region there to check the infrastructure, to see what needed to be done. We've seen other soldiers from the German and the Dutch forces up there as well helping out - simply taking aid to the people, also bringing the wounded in - taking them into hospitals. But the combat operations are continuing here in Afghanistan. We spent the earlier half of this week back at Bagram airbase where the British marines are expected - perhaps by the end of this week - to continue the fight against al-Qaeda and against the Taleban. This is course will be Britain's biggest deployment abroad of combat troops since the Gulf War.

Manisha Tank:

Dominic Graham, UK: Do you have any idea of what percentage of the international peacekeeping forces stationed in Afghanistan are involved with the relief effort?

Also how is the interim government dealing with this crisis?

Caroline Wyatt:

It is difficult to put a figure on it because of all the separate commands within the operation. Personally, this morning we saw British ISF troops helping unload aid at the airport, take that out to hospitals within Kabul - there were about five trucks, presumably British marines - they were quite far away. We also saw two trucks full of German soldiers up at the earthquake site today, again helping out and some Dutch soldiers up there.

Manisha Tank:

Finally there are many out there wondering how they can help and get involved in some way and perhaps send money. Do you have any idea of what they can do?

Caroline Wyatt:

Hamid Karzai, the leader of the interim government here, said he'd be very, very grateful indeed as would the people of Afghanistan, if people from the outside world can contribute. That I think would be best done by sending money, not by sending clothes or tents or any of that because aid agencies can purchase those locally. But by donating things to the charities that work here: the Halo Trust on de-mining, the Red Cross on trying to rehabilitate people who've lost limbs, Oxfam are also working here. All the major charities in Britain are here on the ground in Afghanistan, doing what they can - they simply need the cash to do it.

See also:

27 Mar 02 | South Asia
26 Mar 02 | South Asia
26 Mar 02 | South Asia
26 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
07 Feb 02 | South Asia
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