Afghans find victims entombed by avalanche

For remote village, nature is a bigger enemy than Taliban

By Deb Riechmann

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 10 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

In this March 8, 2012 photo, Afghan men try to hitch a ride on a helicopter while it was taking off after bringing parliamentarians and disaster officials to Rawanak, Shakay district, Afghanistan.

Associated Press

RAWANAK, Afghanistan — The only warning was the strong wind that howled through the village of Daspai.

One minute Nazar Khuda's sister was at her sewing machine. The next minute she was dead.

She was one of at least 50 people killed when an avalanche of snow, ice and mud thundered off a nearby mountain and buried the village in a disaster-prone area of northeastern Afghanistan where Mother Nature is a bigger enemy than the Taliban.

"We dug down to find the house, and we found the body of my sister over the sewing machine," said Khuda, who lost a total of eight relatives in the avalanche that struck at 9 a.m. last Sunday. "When I saw her body, I couldn't stop crying. After that, I helped the others dig bodies out of the snow."

Twenty children and teenagers and two teachers were found inside a mosque where they had been studying the Quran.

People from nearby villages continued to work on Saturday to see if any more people were still buried in up to 10 feet (3 meters) of snow in the remote village that is still cut off from most outsiders. It's unclear if more will be found. Government officials said 200 people lived in Daspai, but area residents said that estimate was high. They said up to 13 people were injured.

Accounts by Khuda and others who walked through deep snow to get to Daspai are the first detailed narratives of the tragedy in Shakay district of Badakhshan province near the Tajikistan border.

"We spent all day looking for our family members," Khuda said Thursday, standing atop a steep mountain in Rawanak, about a five-hour trek over snow-covered mountains from the avalanche site. "From morning until evening, we dug in the snow and mud. The wooden beams of the houses had collapsed. It was difficult to find the bodies."

His sister's 4-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, who was at the mosque, her husband and four relatives from his family also died in the avalanche. Another one of his sister's children, 13-year-old Abdul Wasi, was staying with Khuda in Rawanak. The storm turned him into an orphan.

Khuda said he spoke with a young girl who was in the mosque when it collapsed from the weight of the snow. "She had been trying to warm her hands near a stove in the mosque and when the avalanche hit, her hands were pressed onto the stove," Khuda said. "She had burns on her hands, feet and forehead."

Other people suffered head injuries when ceiling beams in their homes collapsed, he said. One woman in her 20s told him that she hit the back of her head on a wall when a powerful burst of wind blew a door to her home open and flung her to the other side of the room. Khuda said she told him that the ceiling then fell, and she was hit by flying debris. She didn't remember anything after that, he said.

Abdul Ghafor hiked three hours to reach Daspai. He was too late. His brother, Salim; his 8-year-old niece; and four of his nephews, ages 20 and under, were dead.

"We helped take the bodies from the mosque," said Ghafor.

"The ceiling of the mosque fell. The walls collapsed," he said. "The heavy snow pushed walls from the neighboring houses into the mosque as well."

When Doste Khuda of Rawanak arrived at the site, other villagers had already removed some of the bodies and buried them in mass graves containing about five victims.

"They were so tired," he said. "Eight bodies were buried at the mosque so we took those bodies out and buried them in separate graves."

He used his cell phone to capture the scene. The video shows workers reciting verses of the Quran while removing bodies wrapped in white sheets from a makeshift grave covered by bloodstained beams, a piece of green plastic covered with dirt. A woman in a burqa can be seen crying, "My son. My son."

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