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Afghanistan Earthquake Victims Struggle Against Cold, Lack Of Aid Thousands Missing One Week After Quake

Thousands of people huddling against the cold overwhelmed aid workers reaching earthquake-wracked northeastern Afghanistan on Wednesday with supplies too meager to ease the enormous suffering.

Shivering survivors cowered beneath plastic sheets, their only protection against the cold and snow.

Women clinging to infants wrapped in ice-caked blankets begged relief workers for help.

“Please help us, we have lost everything,” a veiled woman shouted, stumbling down the muddy road from the village of Kezer as aid workers drove past. A man standing at her side simply wept.

One week after the magnitude-6.1 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks killed more than 4,000 people, snow, fog, mud and civil war continued to frustrate rescue efforts.

Those obstacles were compounded by fresh fears that the death toll may rise. Jacques Tremblay, an official with the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said 4,300 people are missing, either trapped or dead in the remote villages and hamlets hardest hit by the quake.

Of the 27 remote villages obliterated in the quake, only two have roads. Ghanji, eight miles from the regional center, Rustaq, is one of them. The road is little more than a trail.

Villagers from the tiny hamlet gathered on a cliff to watch a Red Cross aid convoy approach. They quickly realized their suffering was far from over.

The convoy consisted of only one car full of supplies, a backup car and three cars bringing reporters.

Village elders determined which families were neediest and then called out family names as the aid was passed out: blankets, five tents, cooking supplies and children’s boots. The supplies had to be carried the last few hundred yards; the cars could go no farther.

People in the town told of tragedy. One woman, Safar Bibi, said she came the night of the earthquake for her cousin’s wedding. Both bride and groom were 15 years old.

“They both died that night,” she said.

People streamed into Rustaq from dozens of mountain villages buried by landslides that toppled mud and brick homes. Refugees lined the road, hoping for aid.

Doctors without Borders was one of the first to reach the region. The clinic at Rustaq, barely able to handle 30 patients, is bulging with 150. Many were badly burned and suffering multiple fractures.

In a frigid corner, a man - barely 20 - screamed and clutched his injured leg. A surgeon rushed over, administered the little anesthetic available and, without scrubbing up, amputated, witnesses said.

Yet aid workers say the people who reached Rustaq - about 90 miles northeast of the Afghan capital Kabul - are fortunate.

Thousands more are believed to be trapped in their devastated villages, having survived the quake but too weak to leave, said Alexander Faite of the Red Cross. “We are afraid that hundreds will die if we don’t get aid to them,” he said.

Snow fell on the mountain passes for two days. Even donkey caravans were stuck in waist-deep snow. On Wednesday, the weather began to clear.

“We are hoping in the next couple of days we will get lots of supplies in here. Blankets, plastic sheeting, food, medicine. We need everything,” Faite said.

In neighboring Pakistan, a U.N. plane loaded supplies and prepared to leave Thursday if the weather held, said Sarah Russell, a U.N. spokesman. Flights were canceled the two previous days.

The area, including the closest airstrip, was buried under one foot of snow. Aid workers feared survivors would die of exposure or disease.

Emergency supplies piled up in Tajikistan, Pakistan and India, awaited transportation to at least 15,000 people left homeless by the tremors. The Red Cross was negotiating to use government and privately owned helicopters to fly in essentials, officials in Rustaq said.

Rescue efforts were further hampered by almost 20 years of civil war, which has destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure and erected impenetrable front lines across its shattered highways.

The northern military alliance that controls the quake zone faces the Taliban Islamic army along a front 40 miles southwest of Rustaq. Only sporadic fighting has been reported since the Taliban, which controls 85 percent of Afghanistan, declared a unilateral cease-fire Saturday to facilitate relief efforts.