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 11:57 p.m. MST

"The village is destroyed, completely destroyed," Doste Khuda said. "The wounded people have been moved to other villages because they cannot live there any more. They lost everything."

Three Afghan parliamentarians, the director of Afghanistan's National Disaster Management Authority, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator, an Associated Press reporter and others flew to Badakhshan on Wednesday aboard two Afghan military helicopters. They went first to the capital of Faizabad, landing on a bumpy metal runway the Soviets built in the 1980s.

They then flew on to Shakay district center, landing between mountains on the banks of a blueish green river, which separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan. They waited late into the evening to hear from officials and aid workers who had walked for nine hours in deep snow and along narrow paths that clung to the mountainsides to reach Daspai.

Parliamentarian Fawzia Kofi finally reached an employee of the Geneva-based Agha Khan Foundation who hiked to the site. He reported that 47 bodies had been recovered; nine people were wounded and three of those later died.

"People from nearby villages have come to help," Kofi said, recounting the call under a full moon that illuminated nearby mountain peaks. "They are trying to find them. They're using shovels and their hands. There is no medical team."

Unable to land at the avalanche site, the parliamentarians and other government officials flew on Thursday to Rawanak where they spoke with Khuda and others.

The deputy director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan, Joseph Inganji, said 500 kilograms of medicine, food for infants and 40 family kits of blankets, plastic sheeting, cooking supplies and warm clothes has been sent to help survivors. But that aid, ferried in by two Afghan military helicopters, has only made it as far as Rawanak.

Afghans living in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan are used to avalanches. The most deadly one in the past two years occurred in February 2010, when more than 170 people were killed at the 12,700-foot (3,800-meter) -high Salang Pass, which is the major route through the Hindu Kush mountains that connects the capital to the north.

Before this avalanche, the people of Daspai lived in stone and mud houses built in a valley between two mountains. They eked out a living by herding animals and growing wheat, barley and mulberries.

This is an area where many children are malnourished and the infant and maternal mortality rates are some of the highest in the world. During the winter when snow blocks the roads, the only way in or out of Daspai and other remote villages is on foot or with donkeys and horses.

The desperation caused by isolation was on full display in Rawanak. As the helicopters landed with the officials, about a dozen university students who had returned to the village to see their families but were stranded by snow, rushed the chopper in hopes of hitching a ride to Faizabad. They tried to get on before the dignitaries got off; one later jumped into the chopper as it was taking off.

"We have a lot of districts that are closed off for six months of the year because of snow," said Shah Wali Adeeb, the governor of Badakhshan. He said nine of the 27 districts surrounding the provincial capital are at risk from landslides, avalanches and flooding.

"This year, we had a lot of snow. We are worried now that when it melts, it will destroy many more villages," Adeeb said.

This has been the worst winter in 15 years, according to humanitarian workers. In anticipation, they stockpiled food and medicine in various parts of the province last fall.

The people in the area, who have suffered from drought during eight of the past 11 years, now face the threat of landslides and spring floods.

"It's a silent tsunami here," Kofi said.

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