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A Snapshot Of Kabul's Perceived Indifference Amid Tragedy

The offending photograph
It was Afghanistan's worst natural disaster in a decade. But just days after a huge landslide had turned the remote mountain village of Abe Barik into a mass grave, a government delegation was all smiles as its members posed for a group photo just meters from grieving survivors.

The photo has sparked outrage throughout Afghanistan since it was taken on May 3 in the northern province of Badakhshan, site of the May 2 tragedy that the United Nations estimates has killed at least 500 people.

As the death toll and frustrations over the rescue effort continue to rise, many Afghans believe the snapshot underscores the government's slow response to the disaster.

Survivors have expressed fierce anger with the relief effort, saying they have been without food, water, or shelter for days. Others have slammed the government for abandoning the search for the estimated 2,000 people trapped under mud and debris.

The photo spread quickly on social networks, attracting angry comments directed at the smiling entourage, which included Agriculture Minister Asef Rahimi and Niamatullah Shahrani, who is a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, and was headed by second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili.

On Twitter and Facebook, the group photo is attached to a cartoon that shows a group of men taking photos of a hand as its owner calls for help from beneath the mud. Abe Barik was leveled following heavy rain that sent a torrent of mud and rocks down the surrounding valley.

Abbas Daiya, an Afghan journalist, on Twitter called the delegation's actions "shameless."

Nasrat Samimi, a journalist with Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency, wrote on Twitter that the delegation should be ashamed.

Ramin Anwari, a human rights activist in Kabul, Tweeted that the photo was "awful" and "disgraceful."

Meanwhile, the Kabul-based "Open Society" newspaper ran the group photo on its front page on May 5 with the headline "Smiling At A Disaster."

The controversy over the photo comes amid mounting criticism of the government's handling of the crisis.

The landslide has left around 700 people homeless. Afghan army helicopters have delivered water, food, medicine, and tents, while aid agencies and local relief workers have arrived after a difficult journey via unpaved roads.

But villagers are clearly unhappy with the effort. Some lament spending two nights in the open air in near-freezing conditions, while others say they have yet to receive help.

Mullah Abdullah, a resident of Abe Barik, told Reuters on May 5 that his family had received no relief from the government or international organizations in three days since the landslide. He said dozens of homeless survivors like him were miserable and still waiting for food, medicine, and clothes.

"In the past three days we have not received any assistance. Also, women and children in this area are all ill. So far no one has shown any sympathy for us."

Hafizullah, another resident of the village, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan on May 5 that the government had abandoned them. "I lost 10 family members," said Hafizullah, who said he had not received any relief.

Mohammad Asef, the National Disaster Management Authority official in Badakhshan, said local and foreign groups were finding it difficult to distribute the aid amid the chaos.

Ghulam Hussian, another villager, criticized the government for abandoning the search for the estimated 2,000 people still missing. The government called off the search on May 3, just a day after the landslide hit. The government has said there was no possibility of finding any survivors.

The exact toll of the disaster may never be known because many victims were swept into a ravine and buried under meters of mud.

Hussain -- and hundreds of other villagers -- have nevertheless continued their search, using shovels and sometimes their bare hands.

"Of my 15 family members who were living here, only one of them is alive. He was not here when the landslide took place, he was in Kabul," Hussain said. "Eight family members of my cousin's family are trapped, and about 16 other relatives are under the mud. We demand that the government bring bulldozers here in order to take the bodies out from under the mud."

In an apparent response to the criticism, Gul Muhammad Baidar, deputy governor of Badakhshan, announced that the rescue effort would resume on May 5. He said the search operation would go on for the next five or six days “to psychologically comfort the people” who had lost family members.

Afghans have used social networks to rally relief through a Facebook page and Twitter account called "Badakhshan Needs You." The effort is aimed at fundraising and providing information about victims.

Dozens of photos have been shared on Facebook and Twitter showing citizens collecting money in cities across the country.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.