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Earthquake in Afghanistan


The rain began to fall as we crossed the Amu Darya. The river was brown and wide and the helicopter crawled slowly into the gray clouds, climbing beyond the high mountain pass into Afghanistan. I gazed at the Hindu Cush that stretched as far as the eye cold see. I closed the round porthole to keep out the rain and the cold wind and I stood behind the Tadjik pilots who were flying the blue and yellow chopper with the Red Cross stamped on its backside. Whistish-brown clay villages along the riverbeds. Houses huddled together and square after square of green field on round mountains. We dipped down from the low clouds, passing over the houses of Faizibad, over a green metallic strip, and landed heavily. Afghanistan. Badakhshan. Armed Afghanis stared at the helicopter. A Red Cross Jeep. A car from the English doctors’ organization. Rupert and Juan, the UN press liaison men. Lena, the Finnish press officer. Another two helicopters landed and after them a Pakistani army plane that had come from Islamabad, and after it another UN Antonov from Peshawar on the Afghani-Pakistani border. Afghanis loaded sacks of wheat on their shoulders and set them down at the edge of the landing strip. Blankets from another helicopter. Tents. Stretchers.

On May 30, 1998 the earth shook. The mountains between Faizibad and Rustok shook off the villages that had been on them. A huge area of about 3,500 square kilometers heaved backwards after the Pakistani atomic explosion, burying between 5,000 and 6,000 people and leaving 70,000 to 80,000 people without a roof over their heads. Frightened. Some of the villages that had been destroyed had already been damaged in the earthquake of February 1990.

Alongside the landing strip stood exploded army vehicles, remnants of the Russian invasion or perhaps of the war between the mujahaddin of the north and Taliban that rule in Kabul. Two tents with armed Afghanis, a clay house with no windows with a wooden floor where five journalists sprawled, their computers and satellite telephones plugged in to a generator that ticked monotonously. Grey rain fell and low clouds licked the sides of the very green mountains. I set my knapsack down on the second story of the abandoned control tower. Will, the BBC corespondent from Kabul, took over the first floor and Phil from the Associated Press sent off a report from a computer he had close by.

“There’s no food here and no water,” said Lena from the UN. “Ask the other journalists how you get food around here.”

For the first time in many years of travel, I had landed in a place like this without having brought along food or water. All the other times it had been possible to hook up with the aid organizations.

Beyond the airport gate, an imaginary gate guarded by two armed Afghanis with long beards – one black, one red – resting on their chests, a large kettle of tea was heating. A few cans of juice. Naan – long, flat bread loaves – and a few canned goods. A group of Afghanis crowded around two rickety stands, seeking work or trying to sell something to the aid workers. “Salaam Aleikum,” I greeted the men standing there, with their beards covering their chests, wearing on their heads the pakul – the round, brimmed Pathan hat – and on their shoulders the patu – the length of light weight cloth used as protection against the cold in the high mountains. I asked what language was spoken here. They said Dari and Pushtu. Dari is Persian. I listens to the sounds. Du is “two” in Persian. Shesh is “six,” like in Arabic and Hebrew. I asked whether it was possible to travel to Kabul from Badakhshan.

“There’s no work in Kabul,” said someone who spoke English. He had been a geography teacher in Kabul before the Taliban took over. I asked again whether it was possible. “Yes, it’s possible to cross the lines, but there’s no work in Kabul.”

Tshuker – Thank you – I said. In the journalists’ dim clay hut sat Razi – an Afghani journalist from Kabul. He smiled as I came in and lit a cigarette.

“Kabul? It’s not easy,” he said. “Eighty percent of the population of Kabul is Tadjik. The differences between the north and the south are not a matter of believe or ethnic origin but rather of the desire to lead. They’re all mujahaddin, but the Taliban are stronger and they have a very clear aim. I’m not sure that anyone will replace the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said with knowing sadness. “You see my beard?” He had a very respectable beard. “This wasn’t good enough in Kabul. The Taliban caught me one day. They have a cloth that they put on your face, and if the hairs aren’t long enough they whip you. This beard cost me five lashes. I didn’t help that I told them that I was journalist. If they catch someone looking at the sole of a woman’s foot, they whip him. And sometimes they stop men on the street and check if they have shaved their pubic hair.”

“Pubic hair?”

“Yes. The impure hair. Men have to shave there.” He smiled a tired smile. His English was faultless and the other journalists said that he was a photographer, journalist and one of the most talented writers around.

“And you live in Kabul?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s interesting there. And don’t cross to the eastern side of the landing strip – it’s mined.” That day, taliban planes strafed the market at Mazar Sharif – the city near ancient Ballah, killing 30 people. If you have to have earthquakes, tehn have them in a place like Adghanistan. In the Fenjishir Valley, 100 kilometers northeast of Kabul, lives Ahmad Masoud, the Lion of Fenjishir, who is fighting the Taliban. The Tadjik pilots take off into the clouds and return in the early afternoon. I looked at my watch. 1:30. They said that they would not be refueling from the fuel tanks at the airfield but only from the fuel at Dushambey. The pleadings of the UN and Red Cross personnel did not help. The helicopters took off and disappeared over the mountains.

“Bastards!” fumed Phil from the Associated Press. “Everyone sucks the blood of the aid organizations. People are dying in the mountains and they are prepared to fuel up only from the stocks that they buy from the Mafia at Dushambey. Yesterday, the deputy foreign minister of Pakistan, Saddik Kanjo, landed here. he got out of the Pakistani Air Force Antonov and demanded fuel. They nearly took it by force of arms. We ran over there. When they saw journalists and cameras, they suddenly stopped. We asked them what Pakistan was giving to the Afghani eartquake victims and Saddik Kanjo said – First give us fuel and then we’ll see.”

“Yes,” I said. In Somalia, the aid organizations would give a 50 percent cut of their fuel to the gangs so they could distribute what was left. That’s the way it is.”

“It’s impossible!”

“I’m on your side,” I reminded him. “There’s work to be done here and there are people who are going to get rich from it.”

“People are dying in the mountains, and in another week neither you nor I will be here and no one will remember the earthquake victims in Afghanistan.”

Only three states recognize the Taliban, which rules eighty percent of the area of Afghanistan: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates. The consulates and embassies have remained in the hands of the old regime. The warfare is fed by large shipment sof arms coming in from Russia and the CIS. The earthquake struck two of the northern provinces – Badakhshan and Tahar. Perhaps this is why the Israelis thought that the Afghanis would agree to accept the aid supplies that are now lying in the Red Cross warehouses; Michael Elmquist, head of the civilian and military division of the UN disaster zone response division, whom I met at the airfield at Dushambey after I left Afghanistan, told me that this would be through the back door and not as an Israeli shipment.

Night falls and I put a pot under the gutter to collect some fesh water and I spread out my sleeping bag in the thick dark. The Afghanis lit campfires and rain began to fall in large drops.

In the morning, I stood on the landing strip. “Get on that helicopter!” said Lena, pointing at the chopper that was loading sacks of wheat, blankets and rice. “But remember that they land only for a few minutes and if you’re not in the helicopter, they’ll take off without you and you will stay behind!”

Waiting for help

Also in the helicopter were the Red Cross man in charge of distribution, the pilots and the flight mechanic. We took off into a blue sky with shreds of cloud. The climbed along the high mountainsides, passing over clay villages and river valleys. We flew to Angrian, one of the villages that had been damaged in the first earthquake. There is no way vehicles can get to Angrian. From Faizibad to the village there is a donkey trail that takes a week to cover. The helicopters, which have not yet airlifted any of the injured, flew to the villages to provide shelter and food, to span the interval before finding an alternative source of food to the flour and rice that was buried under the fallen buildings. Very close to the ground. The mountainsides rise steeply and on the plateau on top Afghani farmers are cultivating green wheat fields. The helicopter flies from valley to valley. It rises above a village that has been built on a tributary and is surrounded by green fields. Villagers begn to run towards the designated landing site as the helicopter dipped and began to descend over the village. The destruction was total. Piles of houses, broken windows, shattered doors, poplar trunks that had held up roofs thrust into the sky. “Five minutes, or maybe even less!” shouted the Red Cross man. The helicopter hovered half a meter above the sloping ground and we jumped out, bending under the propeller. The villagers rushed to hold of the helicopter, carrying out sacks of wheat and grain. No more than 50 meters away from the plane, women and children crowded together in improvised tents of colorful lengths of cloth draped over planks that had been pulled out of the rubble of the houses. The sacks of provisions piled up on the ground. “Hurry!” yelled the man from the helicopter and I jumped in. The helicopter took off the moment I was swallowed in its belly, passing low over the rooftops of the high village and slipping into the valey that descends in the direction of Faizibad.

I got down from the helicopter and headed for the control tower that was about 300 meters away from the landing strip. Halfway along the strip to the abandoned control tower, I heard Lena, the Finnish UN press officer, call out to me. A white UN helicopter had landed by the piles of equipment.

“Where to?’ I asked.

“He’s flying to Rustok, but I don’t know if he has any room.” Rustok is in the Tahar province, on the west side of mountain range split by the fault line that shook the villages. The French people from ACTED, to whom I had spoken in Dushambey, had set up campt there. My big knapsack stayed behind in the control tower, but I could not tear myself away from the helicopter. The flights are not scheduled, and as is always the case in areas of distress and disaster, a person needs to jump onto any passing helicopter if he wants to get anywhere. I pushed my way in. There was room on the helicopter. I stood close to the door. My knapsack with my sleeping bag and most of my stuff remained at the control tower. I thought I was going off for a day or two. I hoped that the Shi’ite Afghanis who were guarding the air field would not covet the knapsack. As I mounted the helicopter I knew that my reunion with my knapsack would be a big surprise. The helicopter, filled with aid personnel, crossed the mountains to the west, flew through gullies and past over jagged teeth of rock. We flew low over the mountains, crawling along the high stream beds. No wonder the British and the Russians were broken in Afghanistan, trying to control a country with a mountainous nature that broke people up into small groups, village battling village for the sources of water and a living.

Rustok is a bit lower than Faizibad by a few thousand meters. The helicopter descended and landed on a patch of green grass. A Red Cross flag flw over a building. A cluster of armored car, armed Afghanis and clumps of people gazing from the edge of the field at the white iron bird. I walked along the broad street. Market day. Large clay pots, cloth from Persia and Iran and central Asia, meeting hanging from hooks in the niches of the clay buildings, poplars along the high brown brick walls, sharp willows, mulberry trees with fruit awaiting the silk worms. Afghanistan is a place of culture. The Silk Route passed through here. This was one of Zarasthustra’s centers. Alexander of Macedonia pcame here on his way to the conquest of the world, and married Roxanne – the most beautiful woman in the world, the princess of Cythera. At Cythera and Oxiana were the Greek kingdoms Alexander left behind. The ancient Greeks called the Amu Daria – the river separating Tadjikistan and Afghanistan – the Oxus. Boys holding a long saw sliced a poplar trunk in half along its entire length – making a post that will hold up the roof a house that will be built. In the shade of the poplars, a boy humped bricks into wooden molds, placing them in the shade to shrink slowly. For of dust thou art.

Ramin greeted me with no surprise and with a broad smile. Fredrick Russel, the head of the organization, gazed at me from a wooden bed, balancing a glass of green tea on his big belly and lighting a local cigarette. Nicholas returned riding on a noble hoorse from a ride in the mountains. In the yard, a bucket stood by the well and cultivated poppies (papvera sominiforum) grew in rows. The innocent lowers wither to leave behind their round seed pods for the time when their brown sap will be milked and turned into opium. A blessed place, Rustok.

I asked Frederick Russell why the aid was so slow.

“There are several reasons for this,” he said in English with that accent the French have. “People are slow here, inefficiency, stupidity, a lack of means of transportation, international politics – “

“And money,” I said in chorus with him. Money corrupts and makes things move.

The sun turned west over the hills, The Afghanis spread a sheet of plastic over the carpet, and we collapsed onto it, dipping bits of naan into the greasy soup that rested alongside mutton and piles of shiny rice.

“There’s a meeting with the governor at eight,” said Moise Dia, the head of the Aga Khan’s organization, and Ismaili organization that specializes in providing aid to Muslim countries in central Asia. This was the evening of the third day of waiting for the helicpter that would take him out of Rustok to Dushambey, so that he could get back to his family in the United States.

Through the dark we walked to the governor’s tent, which was pitched not far from the landing field. A fat, round mid-month moon lit Rustuk up with shadows and jeep headlights illuminated swirls of dust on the dirt roads on the way to the tent. We took our shoes off at the entrance. On the tables were thermoses of green tea and candies. The governor was ensconced in an armchair next to Angie from New Zealand, who was representing the UN. The aid organizations reported on the amounts of food that had been distributed, the tents, the people who had been evacuated from the villages in the Rustuk area and the ones who had been evacuated to the hospitals that had been set up in Faizabad and Chaab.

“I’m reminding you that you should use our help,” said the governor, whose head was swathed in a pakul. I wondered whether there was a threat in his voice, and if this was a continuation of the Tadjik extortion. “What about the road you said you would build?” he asked Nicholas from ACTED.

“We began working on it today,” said Nicholas.

“And who will pay the people?”

“We will. We pay everyone who works with us.”

“Who hires the people – you or we?”

“You, of course,” said Nikolas, “but let’s talk thos over just the two of us.” The governor spoke Dari and the interpretor translated from Dari to English and from English to Dari. The governor’s soldiers stood outside the tent, leaning on Kalashnikov rifles, RPG launchers standing on their tails, their barrels loaded with bombs.

“Is there extortion here?” I asked Moise, who was sitting next to me as the governor emphasized over and over that it would be hard for the aid organizations to work without local help.

“I don’t know,” said Moise. “It could be that he really is looking out for the people of Rustok. Right after the earthquake he organized his soldiers and they went out directly to the villages. They are also not interested in having the villagers come down into Rustok. Afghanistan, as you remember, is a tribal place. Every village has a headman and they are very jealous about their territory.”

The French organization ACTED is the youngest of all the aid organizations, and also the most active. A young and vibrant group whom the people from the other aid organizations regarded half affectionately and half competitively, the way rescuers will in any part of the world.

In the morning, Nicholas took me the warehouse compound. Four trucks stood in the yard. Huge old Russian trucks. The drivers added water to the water tanks, starting the trucks up noisily. They had already been loaded. A trip up the Sanmag – the river that flows northeast from Rustok. Along its banks are three of the villages that had suffered most from the earthquake. I climbed into the cabin of the truck. Sarwal greeted me and the motor filled the cabin with noise. The assistant driver next to him, Abdul Awal, was holding on to the gear stick so that it wouldn’t slip and the truck moved slowly along the pitted dirt road, passing close to the clay houses. In the back were piles of blankets, tents and dry rations. They stopped at a well at the edge of the village and Sarwal opened the front of the truck, poured water into the boiling radiator and filled the tank that had holes in it. An old yellow Russian Jeep brought ten Afghans who climbed onto the top of the truck with their tools. The truck drove through the green wheat fields of this fertile land, passed the outskirts of Rustok and entered the riverbed. Here, there was no longer any road. The huge wheels dug into the muddy bottom, the clay of the wadi, crossed through the water brown with alluvial soil and climbed rocks. I have done a lot of travelling in trucks and Jeeps, but I had never driven through a river. I hoped that the road would get better. A donkey passed us as we waded slowly through the river. But at the spot where two tributaries met we could progress no further. The river was up to a meter on the side of the truck. And even for Sarwal and this truck it was too much.

He stopped and called to the men on the roof of the truck. They climbed down and began to hack away the sides of the wadi with hoes and shovels, pulling out huge boulders with their bare hands making a path before the rolling nose of the truck.

Above us rose the shattered houses of Baghi Hisar. To the northwest, on the other bank of the river, stood the refugees’ tents, spotting the green with blue and red. I promised Sarwal that I wouldn’t be gone for long and Abdal Jabbar walked ahead of me on the slope up to the village. When we got to the top, there ws silence. People sat on the pile of ruins and looked at the forking rivers below. The truck looked tiny from high up. The destruction was total. Lanes will piles of rubble. How many people were kileld at Bagi Hissar? How many injured? Were people buried alive under the ruins? On the roofs stood a few youngsters, each on his own wall, throwing heavy beams of poplar that raised clouds of dust. One family had pitched a tent of lengths of polyethylene and plastic on the site where their house had stood. The young, unveiled women scampered into the tent when they saw me. A ghost town. The noise of the collapsing houses.

The truck was waiting in the riverbed. The remains of the muddy track disappeared. Brown water, rocks. Sarwal navigated the truck with unparalleled artistry. Abdul Awal next to him held clung to the stick so that the gear wouldn’t jump. The wheels dug into the mud of the riverbed. I tried to look into the brown water, to catch sight of pits into which we might fall and never emerge. Phones linked by satellites, laptop computers, helicopters and airplanes and an old truck in the tempestuous riverbed with the side sod the mountains closing steeply over it. “How long till we get to Beha?”

“Du hours,” said Sarwall. Six kilometers. Beha was smashed roofs on walls that had scattered over the ground. Its people are buried under the piles of rubble, the tents are scattered on the slope beyond the ruins and the red-haired headman in the pointed goatskin boots led me into what had once been the village. He told me about the buried families and the food that had disappeared, and counted the tents and the blankets that had arrived. Landslides tumbled from time to time down the crumbly steep slopes opposite the village, stopping the villagers who regarded them fearfully. Abdul Jabbar supervised the unloading of the truck, counting and writing it down. When it was all finished, the village headman came up to me and asked me sign that the village got 150 blankets, 70 tents and 170 crates of food. he demanded that they send another 50 tents. I looked at the headman and remembered the governor of Rustok. The headman’s real concern for the people of his village. I asked for water. He led me to a spring that had not been damaged and I bent down to the cold water on the hot day.

We went down to the fork in the river and went upstream. To Dushtak. With every segment of river, between village and village, the way became more difficult. Impossible. Sarwal examined the brown river, the rocks and the islands of mud, crossing from side to side. I tried to imagine where he would drive. Refrained from making any suggestions. If I hadn’t been in a truck that was traveling in a river I would not have believed that a truck could go over such terrain where even walking did not look easy. The truck collided with the banks, retreated a bit, engaged the gears and gnawed away at the mud and rocks. Sarwal stopped at an island in the middle of the river and raised the hood to look at eh motor. The thermometer showed it was nearly boiling. The brown river water on the iron of the motor evaporated with a sizzle. Abdul Awal looked worriedly at the gray clouds that accumulated on the igh peaks. “Seil,” he said. A flood. Sarwal looked at the brown water and at the rocks and kept on driving through the river. What a country. High mountains and raging rivers and no roads, but for Sarwal and Abdul Awal and Abdul Jabbar it was the only country and the trapped villages were waiting for them upriver, and the river was very high now. Now the river was too deep even for Sarwal and the truck. The village was two kilometers away. I took off my shoes and Mir who had got down from the top of the truck held out a hand to me as we crossed the river.

The quake,

Earthquake in Afganistan 1998

“Doshtak.” Abdul Jabbar pointed to the tents scattered on the mountainside. The living had fled the ruined village to the other side. We crossed the brown water that was sucking down stones and climbed up on the other bank to the eastern side of the mountain. A green field, a high plateau about 200 meters above the riverbed. A view than which few are more lovely. Silence enveloped the village. An ominous silence. Below, a few hundred meters a way, flags flew on a pile of clay rubble.

“That was the Doshtak school,” said Abdul Jabbar. We went down into what had been the village. The mountainside had been sliced off in the earthquake and had slid away, pulling the village with it, devastating and burying the clay houses. We climbed a narrow new trail to a group of men who were digging in the earth. Heavy drops of rain fell intermittently from the gray sky on the people who were digging. They were digging a child out of the ruins of a house. The excavation looked like a small cave from which the top part of a body emerged. They covered their faces with the Afghani headscarves, against the smell. Young women sat on a step above, waiting with grieving faces for the exposed body. We turned to what had been the school.

“It was lucky that the earthquake happened during the day,” said Swanta Ingrut from the Red Cross in Faizibad. The 140 schoolchildren of Dushtak were not lucky. The pile of rubble is a huge mass grave. Suddenly the silence of the battered village became clear. One hundred and forty children killed, most of the children of the village and another 60 people swiftly buried under the landslide. From the other side of the valley on the steep slope rose the smoke from the entrances to the tents of the living. “It cannot be said with certainty that it was the Pakistani nuclear explosion that caused the earthquake,” said Swanta Ingrut. Of course it cannot be said with certainty. Although the atomic explosion registered as a small earthquake in the middle east as well, at a distance of almost 4,000 kilometers from where it took place, striking the sensitive fault where the earth shook in February of this year for the first time. What are 140 buried children and another few thousand Afghanis as compared to nuclear muscle-flexing?

A mournful wail broke the silence. I looked towards the place where the men were digging. The wail rose and became a chilling lament that sliced through the gray raindrops, touching the brown river that separated the living from the dead. Three young women sat by the dead child, the upper part of his body covered by a cloth. Small boots were on his dead feet, his trousers sour with congealed blood. His mother, a young girl, cried out to her dead son, smoothing his legs and his belly in her lament. The men sitting on the step above regarded her with closed faces. The sweet smell of death from the rotting corpse. Below us, men continued to dig the dead out of the piles of earth that had slid down and choked the dead, filling their mouths and noses with dirt, bringing down on them the heavy roofs and clay walls.

Afghanistan mother and dead child 1998

We went down among the dead, walking on the people buried beneath our feet, climbing up on the green plateau to return tot he truck that had meanwhile finished unloading the cargo of food, tents and blankets.

“Hurry,” said Sarwal, “seil.” The rain in the high mountains had raised the water level in the river. The truck moved heavily and went down into the deep water that covered the high wheels. A roiling mist rose from the boiling motor when the floodwaters touched it. sarawal chose the route, trying to see where it was possible to cross, Abdul Awal clutching the old gear stick so that it wouldn’t slip at the critical moment. The water continued to rise and the truck escaped heavily to the bank above the flow. We got out of the stilled truck and lay on the moist green grass in the shade of the poplars. The Afghanis drank from the water skin I had brought, and found and shared out a long flat loaf of naan. We smoked cigarettes from a pack I carry in my photographer’s vest and waited for the water to go down. When the water went down a bit, the truck continued on its heavy journey, making its way through the water and the mud. A man on the far bank signaled us to stop. Sarwal crossed over to him and stopped. The family, three young women, an older woman, men and children hurried to the truck carrying household goods they had rescued from the destroyed houses. They were refugees making their way to the relative safety of Rustok, fleeing the devastated village. The men helped the women and children climb up onto the high truck. we returned to the muddy riverbed and into the brown water that effervesced with white foam around the rocks.

At the fork where the river goes up to Beha, the red-haired headman was waiting with a group of men armed with Kalashnikovs. He climbed into the driver’s cabin and signaled me to get out, making me a hostage, addressing me in Dari. The 50 words I had learned did not enable me to understand. Abdul Jabbar patiently reassured me. The headman was demanding that they bring more tents. Abdul Jabbar took out his notebook and wrote this down, passing the notebook over to me so that I could confirm this with my signature. I offered the headman a farewell cigarette. Again I had the strong feeling that the headman was concerned for the lives of those for whom he was responsible. The units in Afghanistan are local, small and hermetic, fighting for their lives without any aid from the central government. For better or for worse.

We plunged back into the river. From here, the way looked easier. The truck rolled down the river that had broadened considerably, opening into the valley of Rustok. The sun came out from behind the clouds and the wheat fields to which the truck climbed were covered in a soft light. Here, the truck’s heart broke and it stopped on a gentle slope, rocks piled under its rear wheels. I left my small pack and my jacket in the driver’s cabin and walked along the glittering track. Mir and Abdul Jabbar strode beside me. We were distancing ourselves from the death upriver, walking in a silence that is the silence of distant mountains. To the east, the westering sun’s rays beat down on the glaciers of the Hindu Cush, tinting them with a soft golden gleam. Simply, with the devastated villages behind me, it was good to be alive.

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