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Afghanistan: Inured To Tragedy, Afghans Stoically Dig Out From Earthquake And Bury Their Dead

The people of Afghanistan have suffered for a quarter of a century from war. In recent years, the country also has been struck by a severe drought. On 25 March, this unfortunate land was hit by an earthquake that relief agencies say killed at least 800 people and left thousands homeless. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky filed this report from the earthquake's epicenter.

Nahrin, Afghanistan; 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The people of Afghanistan have suffered many calamities over the last 25 years. In the last few months, though, since the fall of the repressive Taliban government, things seemed to be improving, with the international community working with the country's interim government to draw up plans to rebuild Afghanistan.

But on the evening of 25 March, an earthquake ripped through an area about 150 kilometers north of the capital, Kabul, bringing death and devastation to a large area containing a sizable town and some 80 villages.

The earthquake -- measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale -- also was felt in Kabul, where buildings swayed, sending people running into the streets. But the quake's epicenter was near the town of Nahrin, which lies in what, before the drought, was a fertile valley in Baghlan Province.

Nahrin is comprised of what local people call the new city and the old city. The old city is built predominantly of wattle -- mud and straw -- and wooden beams. It is now almost completely leveled, with the crumbling walls seemingly returning to the sun-baked earth from which they were formed.

Wooden beams and window frames protrude from the rubble at odd angles. Pieces of furniture, cupboards, and carpets are the only color in the dusty brown mounds. Clusters of graves -- some with eight or 10 people in them -- lie not far from the remains of the homes where the dead had lived just three days ago.

The "new" part of Nahrin -- where some of the buildings were constructed of brick -- has also been badly affected. The town's main domed mosque has great cracks in its walls.

Original estimates put the death toll from this week's quakes as high as 2,000, but aid agencies said today there are around 800 confirmed dead so far. Many more bodies are feared buried beneath the rubble, however. The country is observing a day of mourning today for the victims.

One man who lost three of his children in the earthquake, Bahadur, said his family was eating the evening meal when the earthquake struck. "We didn't have any warning," he said. "All of a sudden, the world began to tremble, and we were thrown to the ground and felt ourselves being covered in rubble."

"After the earthquake, we were buried under rubble, and we could not dig ourselves out," he said. "After a time, people came to save us and pulled us out."

But three of his children -- a son and two daughters, ages 4 to 14 -- were dead when they were pulled out. He said he buried them the day after the earthquake and that he is now concerned about his injured wife and how to shelter his remaining five children.

Perhaps because Afghanistan is used to tragedy, Bahadur's face and the expressions of most of the other people who lost members of their families in the earthquake are deceptively impassive. Nobody is crying, at least not publicly. The only indications of grief are the many people sitting silently on their own, lost in their thoughts.

Another man, Ghulam Sakhi, said two members of his family were injured, but that he was able to help them and some of his neighbors escape from the rubble.

"After the earthquake, those people who were buried and still alive were crying out, begging for help. Everyone who could helped as much as they could to dig out the trapped people crying underneath the rubble," Sakhi said.

He said survivors were confused and shocked after the earthquake and that it was difficult to see: "There was no electricity, candles, or anything else to see by. We tried to see by the light of the moon. Those who were not buried themselves went to where people were under the rubble, and we tried to dig them out."

Sakhi said the destruction is vast and that local inhabitants will not be able to rebuild their homes themselves. He said drought has made farming difficult in recent years and that many men are unemployed. Now, he says, local families don't even have homes.

"This area, as you see, is completely destroyed and demolished, and it will take a long time to rebuild it. And the people of the area are not able to rebuild it themselves," Sakhi said. "We will have to turn to aid agencies to help rebuild the area."

Another survivor, 25-year-old Abdel Hamid, said he was also eating the evening meal with his family when the earthquake struck. He said there was so much shaking that they could not flee.

"When the earthquake happened, I was with eight of my family at home. It shook terribly. We wanted to flee, but we were helpless," Hamid said. "It went on for minutes, and then after that for a long time the earth was moving."

Hamid said he could not comprehend that an earthquake was occurring. He said there was a "big roar" and then everything collapsed.

One of Hamid's neighbors, seven-year-old Abdel Hai, described what happened to him: "I was in the compound of our house and suddenly there was a horrible earthquake, and I wanted to run away."

Rescuers removed Abdel from the rubble that had collapsed on top of him. The rest of his family also survived the disaster. Abdel will not walk or stand near any buildings anymore. There have been severe tremors since the earthquake, and Hamid is convinced that more will follow.

As if to justify his fears, another tremor rippled through the town this afternoon, sending pieces of loose masonry falling to the ground.

Many aid agencies were already working in the country and reacted quickly to the emergency. The international peacekeeping force in Kabul and U.S.-led combat forces are also providing help. They have flown in medical supplies, tents, and blankets in giant Chinook helicopters, and 21 aid agencies -- including the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency -- are providing relief supplies, food, and water.

The UN's coordinator on humanitarian affairs in Afghanistan, Stephanie Bunker, said tents have been distributed throughout the town of Nahrin and in outlying villages. It is spring and the weather is tolerable during the day. At night, however, temperatures plunge below freezing.

Bunker said: "What needs to be done is to keep working and doing it as fast as possible. What we've done so far is that by today, by, I think, around noon today, we had assisted some 9,000 families with tents and/or blankets. He have succeeded in starting to get food out to people, and right now there are 5,000 people, I believe, who have been assisted with food aid. And later today and/or tomorrow, another 5,000 people will also be receiving food aid."

One of the aid agencies, Medecins sans Frontieres, said its workers have helped 500 injured people, while the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan said its medical staff has treated 400 people. The UN's Bunker said more casualties are expected over the next few days.

"Over the next few days, we'll keep doing basically what we are doing, which is getting the stuff out. Most of our problems right now are more on the logistical side, rather than on the supply side. We have had cases where the roads have been blocked, and we cleared the road, and the roads were then blocked again. We've had these logistical nightmares that we're confronting. So we'll continue doing that. And I can't tell you how long it's going to take or how many days it will take. I have no ide," Bunker said.

The bulk of the relief supplies must be brought in by truck. Some trucks are coming from the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, but most will originate in Kabul. The journey is a grueling one across the snowy and treacherous Salang Pass, through the Hindu Kush Mountains. The roads are badly damaged by war and littered with wrecked tanks and abandoned armored personnel carriers. The relief vehicles must also drive on sun-baked mud tracks across barren plains fringed by mountains up to 4,000-meters high.

Bunker said aid agencies cleared roads blocked by the earthquake on 26 March, only to have them damaged again by aftershocks yesterday. She said dynamite has been used to blast a route clear but that more aftershocks are expected.