ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The earth continues to tremble with aftershocks two days after a 7.3 magnitude earthquake razed entire villages in the Zagros Mountains of Rojhilat, as the Kurdish areas of Iran are known.
Many villagers complain that aid is slow in coming, or has not arrived at all.
“The disaster in this region is unbelievable,” stated the Kurdistan Human Rights Association. The organization claimed that Iran has blocked dissemination of news from some areas so the full scale of the situation cannot be estimated yet.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the official death toll stood at 530, with another 7,460 injured. Head of Iran's Emergency Medical Services Pir-Hossein Kolivand, announced Tuesday evening that rescue efforts in Kermanshah province "have ended."
Some 1,900 villages and seven cities in Kermanshah province have been affected, according to figures from Iran’s Interior Ministry. Twelve thousand houses were completely demolished and another 15,000 need repairs, said a construction official, Azizullah Mahdiani.
Many villages were completely destroyed.
“Walls have fallen on my sisters and father. I had to drag them out of the house,” a resident of a village near Sarpol-e Zahab told the BBC. “The whole village is ruined.”
The man said that graves were cracked and some bodies had come out of the ground.
Some victims are being buried without formal notification of the authorities, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported. These areas had not yet been visited by relief teams.
In one village, 21 people were killed but “so far not even one person has come to help the village,” a local official told KHRN. They buried the dead themselves.
Night time temperatures in the mountains are dipping down to near freezing and many are sleeping in tents or cars. Medical supplies are buried under the rubble.
“Severe cold weather and extreme temperatures and the wide location of the affected people are the challenges for relief operation,” said the Iranian Red Crescent, which reported it had so far distributed 26,000 blankets, 10,000 tents, and 200,000 tins of food.
On social media, victims have refuted official claims that aid is being distributed. Some say they have not received tents or food. Others were pleading for a drink of water.
Where official aid has not reached, Kurds have mobilized to help each other, according to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI).
The head of the party’s foreign relations, Loghman Ahmedi, shared a photograph of a note from a man who shared all he had – about $8.50.
Landslides triggered by the earthquake temporarily closed roads, affecting access to some areas. Iranian officials reported on Monday that all roads had been opened.
Recovery efforts are being led by Iran's armed forces.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited the area on Tuesday.
“I want to assure those who are suffering that the government has begun to act with all means at its disposal and is scrambling to resolve this problem as quickly as possible,” he said.
His Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to extend his thanks for international offers of help, but said, “For now, we can manage with our own resources.”
Many of the victims were living in apartment buildings built under the Mehr project, which was launched under the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It saw the construction of some two million low income housing units, but was criticized for poor quality.
The Kurdish areas of Iran are among the country’s poorest.
Rouhani, touring Sarpol-e Zahab where hundreds of the Mehr units were built and some 300 people died in the earthquake, promised an investigation.
“The faults and shortcomings in the construction of these buildings should be investigated,” he said. The “government will definitely follow up on these issues and identify the culprits.”
Most of the units were constructed under Ahmadinejad’s tenure, but some were completed under Rouhani.
The president also promised handouts and loans to aid reconstruction.