The grass on the graves from February's killer quake was growing in the summer sun when Saturday's tremors jolted one of the poorest spots on the planet and created thousands more.

Hillsides shook, houses crashed down gorges and terrified peasant farmers collecting wheat in the fields began anew to reap a crop that Afghanistan has in plenty - misery."The destruction was quite amazing," the United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan, Alfredo Witschi-Cestari said on return from Shar-i-Buzurg, the most seriously affected area.

"We saw a couple of villages that had been completely flattened, but there are probably more. This is a mountainous region and the force of the earthquake sent houses crashing down hillsides towards the valley below," he said.

For almost 20 years Afghanistan has lived at the bottom of the league table of the world's poorest states, fighting a losing battle to avoid relegation to that other, unofficial table where countries at near-permanent war reside.

Its first letter gives it top place in World Bank tables of economic stat-is-tics. But the figures themselves give it bottom ranking along-side countries such as So-mal-ia.

There are no entries for real Gross Domestic Product for Somalia in the war years of 1990 to the present day. For Afghanistan, there are figures for the same period, but they are mostly prefaced with a negative to denote con-trac-tion.

Years of civil strife followed by Soviet occupation, a "liberation war" by Moslem Mujahideen, holy warriors and factional fighting over the rubble of the nation have created a shortage of every basic modern infrastructural facility.

Roads segue seamlessly into potholed wilderness tracks. Electricity sputters in the main towns. The generator is king. At night hillside villages are kerosene-lit dots.

The warlords and their rivals communicate by satellite telephones imported from Europe and paid for by their various benefactors in Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The earthquake struck a part of northern Afghanistan controlled by a loose alliance of heavily armed guerrilla warriors fighting to reverse the conquest by another heavily armed guerrilla group, the Islamic Taleban militia.

The Taleban, bent on a mission to create the world's purest Islamic state, control two-thirds of the country through a system of local militia, justice dispensed by mullahs and a crude taxation system on everything from wheat to poppies.

The opposition, backed into enclaves since the Taleban seized the capital, Kabul, in September 1996, have a parallel administration that has its own currency, school system and network of taxation and levies on peasant farmers.

Trapped between the feuding factions is a population whose size can only be guessed at. Some put the population at 14 million, others 12. The only certainty is that nearly all those who could leave in the last decade did.

More than a million live as refugees in neighboring Pakistan, either in tented cities in dusty border towns or neat resettlement schemes where they have lived for a decade or more, first on handouts, then on the crops they grow.

Only about 20 percent of Afghans in the country can read or write, according to U.N. estimates which many other aid workers say are optimistic. Nearly a million educated people have fled, leaving behind an acute skills shortage.