Landslides entomb thousands in Afghan village

Mud which engulfed Ab Barik, leaving some 4,000 homeless. Pictures: Reuters
Mud which engulfed Ab Barik, leaving some 4,000 homeless. Pictures: Reuters
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RESCUERS in Afghanistan have given up hope of finding any more survivors in a double landslide which is feared to have killed an estimated 2,700 people.

Late yesterday they stopped digging through the thousands of tonnes of earth and mud that wiped out an entire village in the remote north-eastern province of Badakhshan.

Officials now say the site has become a mass grave for the villagers of Ab Barik, in the district of Hargu.

Rescue teams had spent more than a day sifting through mud after the landslide. They were aided by hundreds of volunteers armed with shovels and little more than their bare hands who joined them in their attempts to dig through earth and mud looking for survivors or the bodies of their relatives and neighbours.

The United Nations estimates at least 4,000 people have been left homeless as a result of the catastrophe.

Rescue efforts have been complicated by fears of a further landslide, but officials accept they are unlikely to find any survivors in what is now the final resting place of thousands of people.

“That will be their cemetery,” said Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s two vice-presidents, who yesterday visited the scene. “It is not possible to bring out any bodies.”

With the landslide site designated a grave, a mass funeral was held last night.

Aidan O’Leary, head of UN operations in Kabul, said: “People have been working furiously to try to undertake rescue efforts but unfortunately without success.

“We’ve had almost 300 homes buried under three feet of mud, and with the scale and the speed of the onset it simply wasn’t possible to rescue the lives that are there.”

Badakhshan is a mountainous province with remote rural districts. Every year, avalanches and mudslides affect communities there. But the mudslide in Ab Barik surprised many.

From the top of a muddy hill, local woman Begam Nesar pointed to the torrent of earth below that had wiped out much of her village.

“Thirteen of my family members are under the mud,” she said. Those missing include her mother, father, brothers, sisters and children.

She said she only survived because she had been out visiting relatives at a nearby village, when disaster struck on Friday.

The UN has so far confirmed that 350 people have died, and the provincial governor said as many as 2,000 people were feared missing.

But the International Organisation of Migration said information gathered from local community leaders indicated at least 2,700 people were dead or missing.

It emerged that many of those killed had rushed to the village to help friends and relatives after a previous, smaller landslide.

It was while they were helping look for people caught in that tragedy that a bigger landslide engulfed Ab Barik.

The ground on a hill overlooking the village was soaked from recent heavy rainfalls, which officials believe triggered the second, massive slide.

Just under a mile away from the site of the landslides, emergency services and aid groups have set up tents to care for people left homeless by the disaster. Officials say at least 300 homes have been destroyed.

Sunatullah, a farmer, was working outside when he felt the earth shake.

He said he ran toward his house, grabbed his wife and children and then ran to high ground nearby. Minutes later, he said, part of the hill above the village collapsed.

“The houses were just covered in mud,” he said. He fears he has lost ten members of his extended family, his house and his livestock.

The side of the mountain above Ab Barik collapsed at around 6.30am (GMT) on Friday as people were trying to recover belongings and their cattle after the smaller landslip.

The Afghan military yesterday flew rescue teams to the area, as the remote mountain region is served by only narrow, poor roads also damaged by more than a week of heavy rain.

“We have managed to get one excavator into the area, but digging looks hopeless,” said Colonel Abdul Qadeer Sayad, a deputy police chief of Badakhshan. He said the sheer size of the area affected, and the depth of the mud, meant that only modern machinery could help.

“I call on the government to come and help our people, to take the bodies out,” said a middle-aged man, standing on a hill overlooking the river of mud where his village once stood.

“We managed to take out only ten-15 people, the rest of our villagers here are trapped.”

Officials are continuing to distribute food and water to rescue workers and those left displaced by the landslides, said Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, the head of Badakhshan’s National Disaster Department.

Rescuers have struggled to reach the remote area, where there is little development or infrastructure because wet weather had created unsafe conditions. They say much of north and east Afghanistan has been hit by heavy rain in recent days and more is forecast.

“Badakhshan is a remote, mountainous region of Afghanistan, which has seen many natural disasters,” said the head of the International Organisation for Migration’s Afghanistan office, Richard Danziger.

“The scale of this landslide is absolutely devastating, with an entire village practically wiped away. Hundreds of families have lost everything.”

Badakhshan borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

Officials say it is one of the poorest regions in one of the world’s poorest countries and have warned it could be several weeks before the full extent of the disaster is known.

US President Barack Obama said American forces were on standby to help.

“Just as the United States has stood with the people of Afghanistan through a difficult decade, we stand ready to help our Afghan partners as they respond to this disaster, for even as our war there comes to an end this year, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people will endure,” he said.

About 30,000 US soldiers remain in Afghanistan, although that number is falling as Washington prepares to withdraw all combat troops who battled Taleban insurgents by the end of this year.

Police said they had provided a security ring around the area, which has been relatively free of insurgent attacks.

The Taleban said in a statement it was also willing to co-operate to ensure that rescue efforts were not hampered.

British charities are also mobilising teams to help with the rescue response. The health charity Merlin, which is part of Save the Children, sent five ambulances to the mountain village.

Onno Van Manen, acting country director for Save the Children in Afghanistan, said: “Assessment reports show up to six metres of mud in the worst-affected areas, and the displaced population need urgent medical support for injuries sustained.”

In addition to the wars and fighting that have plagued Afghanistan for roughly three decades, the country has been subject to repeated natural disasters including landslides and avalanches. A landslide in 2012 killed 71 people. Authorities were not able to recover the vast majority of those killed.