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A week of earthquakes brings death, grief, and trauma to Afghanistan’s Herat

‘It felt like being a football, as if you were being kicked around from one side to the other.’

A man stands on top of piles of rubble after 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Afghanistan's western province of Herat on October 15, 2023. Samir Mirwai/Anadolu
One of several Herat villages turned to rubble by the series of strong earthquakes that began shaking the western Afghan province on 7 October. More than 1,000 people have been killed.

Faizullah Karimi was tending to his family’s barley fields when the ground started to shake beneath him late on the morning of 7 October.

“This was no ordinary quaking – there was a force to it. I felt like the ground was rising up, lifting me one, two metres, into the air,” the 24-year-old told The New Humanitarian in his village of Wardaka.

What Karimi felt turned out to be the first in a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that have killed more than 1,000 people and levelled entire villages across Afghanistan’s western province of Herat over the past nine days.

Since that Saturday morning, Herat has experienced at least two more earthquakes above a magnitude of six and with depths as shallow as six kilometres, displacing thousands of families across five districts of Herat and turning the provincial capital into a tented village.

When the first quake struck, Karimi’s thoughts immediately turned to the women in his family – six sisters, their mother, an aunt, and a female cousin. They were all indoors a few hundred metres away. Unable to reach any of them by phone, he started to run. 

But as he raced back, the earth continued to rumble and shake beneath him. “You couldn’t even stand,” he said. “You had to just fall to the ground until the shaking stopped.” 

When he finally reached his home, he found his older sister washing glasses as tears fell down her face.

Initially, Karimi couldn’t focus enough to ask her what happened. He was too distracted by the sights all around him. Everywhere he turned, it was the same: dirt, rocks, and rubble as far as his eyes could see – almost as if their entire village had never existed.

“What are you doing? Where is everyone?” he finally managed to ask. 

“Look around you – they’re all trapped,” she said, numbed herself by shock, not knowing what she could do to help, and nervously trying to keep busy.

‘There was nothing I could do’

Karimi immediately rushed towards the mound of dirt and rocks where their house once stood. He started clawing with his bare hands. Slowly, one by one, he managed to rescue his mother, three sisters, and their aunt.

Because the villages here are so remote – deep along dusty, unpaved roads – thousands of people acted as Karimi did, using whatever rudimentary tools were at their disposal to try and rescue their trapped loved ones.

“Entire villages are gone. Everyone is buried under the rubble. You have to radio for help.” 

Residents in Herat admitted that the mad rush to free people without proper tools and search and rescue techniques likely contributed to some of the hundreds of deaths and 2,000 injuries, but with the main city of Herat more than 40 minutes away by car, they say they had no choice but to improvise.

By the time Karimi reached into the ground to try and dig out their cousin, the tremors had started again. Only this time, they seemed even more intense. 

“It felt like being a football, as if you were being kicked around from one side to the other,” he said.

The renewed shaking caused even more debris to fall on his still-trapped cousin.

“There was nothing I could do,” Karimi said. “She was gone.” He had to accept that it was too late to save her. He had no choice but to turn his attention to getting the surviving women in his family to a hospital.

Again, he ran – this time managing to flag down a police vehicle that was zooming down the unpaved road. 

Karimi and the police carefully loaded the women into the car and headed on the 40-minute journey along the unpaved dirt and gravel road to Herat, the provincial capital.

Just before they reached the paved road leading into the city, Karimi saw a security checkpoint and stopped to give them clear instructions, saying: “Entire villages are gone. Everyone is buried under the rubble. You have to radio for help.” 

Karimi said the fact it took him more than an hour to reach anyone outside the village to explain what had befallen the people was one reason the number of casualties from the initial earthquakes was so high.

His story was all too common in the villages of Zinda Jan, where it’s estimated that nearly 1,400 families across almost as many destroyed homes were affected by the earthquakes. Many of the displaced have headed to the city of Herat, only to find little assistance and people there also living in fear and sleeping rough.

According to the UN, 90% of the reported deaths were women and children who, like Karimi’s own relatives, were inside their homes while the men worked in the fields. 

Limited help

Affected residents speaking to The New Humanitarian in five different villages near the epicentre of the earthquakes said the scale of the disaster was also closely linked to Zinda Jan’s status over the last 20 years as one of Herat’s least developed and least secure districts.

From their simple mud houses to the long stretches of unpaved roads and their own meagre incomes from livestock and agriculture, the signs of the decades-long neglect of Zinda Jan were on clear display across the district, they said.

“Even before the earthquake, these communities were already suffering the effects of conflict and insecurity, migration, drought, displacement, and poverty.”

The earthquakes are just the latest natural disaster to test the ability of the Taliban-led government to assist the nation’s 32 million people while facing cutbacks in international aid, crippling sanctions, billions of dollars of losses in asset seizures, banking restrictions, and diplomatic challenges due in part to the Islamic Emirate’s own restrictive policies.

Asian and Middle Eastern countries such as China, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have all contributed to relief efforts. Pakistan also offered assistance, but a source in the Islamic Emirate told The New Humanitarian that Kabul rejected the offer. Ties are strained as Islamabad has threatened to deport more than a million Afghans by the end of the month.

With entire villages in one of western Afghanistan’s most remote and challenging regions having been wiped out, residents in Herat say they need long-term assistance to replace their mud houses and help restart their livelihoods. 

The earthquakes have only compounded existing needs in a country billed by the UN as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to aid workers.

“Even before the earthquake, these communities were already suffering the effects of conflict and insecurity, migration, drought, displacement, and poverty,” UNICEF’s acting representative in Afghanistan, Rushnan Murtaza, said in a statement.

But the earthquakes also come at a time when economic headwinds have seen major international aid organisations cut their aid budgets around the world, including for Afghanistan. UNICEF says it needs an additional $20 million to assist children as part of a three-month earthquake response programme. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has asked for an additional $14.4 million to assist earthquake survivors.

‘All they do is cry for their mother’

Rahim Shah, 30, said it was neglect of the region and a lack of opportunity that led him to be away from his family that Saturday morning. He had just returned to neighbouring Iran, where he had been working as a day labourer for the last decade.

“There is no work here. Someone had to provide for the family,” Rahim said as he sat on a field of dirt surrounded by random teapots, blankets, pillows, and whatever other knick-knacks they were able to retrieve from their crumbled homes in Siya Ab, a 15-minute drive from Wardaka.

By the time Rahim was able to return from Tehran, his wife and two of their four children were long gone. Today, they’re buried in a makeshift graveyard only a hundred metres from where Rahim was sitting, trying to figure out how to go on with his life with just his son and daughter, aged five and three.

“All they do is cry for their mother. I don’t know what to do,” Rahim said.

As one of 2.1 million undocumented Afghans in Iran, he was already in dire straits before the earthquakes. Afghanistan is still in the throes of an economic downturn, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost since the Taliban returned to power in 2021. Both Tehran and Islamabad have once again threatened to deport possibly millions of undocumented Afghans.

Rahim is now left with nothing and no one to help him care for his two surviving children. “We have nothing left,” he said. “It’s just us three. We can’t go to Iran, and we have nothing left here to stay for. I’m lost.”

A shock to the region

The majority of the physical damage – and casualties – from the earthquakes was in the villages, where iron doors, wooden closets, cars, and even bathtubs conspicuously protruded from mounds of dirt and rock even days later. 

However, the situation is little better In the city of Herat, where people have been left with a profound sense of trauma, in constant fear of the next quake. Although Herat sits on one of Afghanistan’s major fault lines, the province’s 3.7 million residents have had much less experience of earthquakes than people in other parts of the country that are hit more often.

Left: As strong earthquakes continued to rattle the region, thousands of people spent the last eight nights sleeping outside in tents across the city of Herat. Right: The villages affected by the earthquakes were some of the least developed and most remote in the province. Residents say those houses survived the initial earthquakes only to be destroyed days later by large aftershocks. (Ali M. Latifi/TNH)

Shah Murad, has spent the entirety of his 62 years in the villages of Zinda Jan, but he said he had never experienced anything like the week-long string of quakes that eventually led his family to share a makeshift tent with three other families.

“I’ve been alive for 62 years – my beard has grown white in these villages – but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

For younger Heratis, especially those in the city, the earthquakes are something they won’t be able to move on from easily. 

Mariam, who would only provide her first name, is among the thousands of Heratis who chose to spend each night of last week sleeping on the side of a street or in one of the city parks.

“No one can work up the nerve to spend more than a few minutes at a time inside their homes,” the 27-year-old said, clutching a blanket to ward off the 15-degree chill.

A massive sandstorm ripped through the province last Thursday evening, but families like Mariam’s still preferred to spend the night outside rather than risk returning to their homes.

“During the day, we wander the streets aimlessly. At night, we sleep outside in the cold,” she said, sitting outside the single tent her six-person family has spent the last eight nights in. A few metres away, small groups of men sleep on blankets in the dirt patches between the dividers that split the city’s main roads.

Mariam said the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government has cleaned up the streets, which used to be crowded with drug addicts and potential thieves and kidnappers after sundown. “We’re not worried about security,” she said. “We’re worried about another earthquake.

This fear has even pervaded the city’s youngest residents.

Shafiullah, a businessman based in the city, said his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mohammad Shokran, was refusing to set foot inside the family’s home, where the walls inside and outside bare large, visible cracks. “He thinks the tents repel earthquakes,” Shafiullah said.

A city transformed

Jawid, a 21-year-old rickshaw driver who only gave one name, said the fear of earthquakes has completely altered the mood of what has long been one of Afghanistan’s busiest economic hubs. 

“The stores are all closed. The historic sites are shut down,” he said. “The only people going to parks are the ones who sleep there.” 

For the last week, the grounds of the city’s historic mosque, including the park behind it, has been filled with multi-coloured tents housing hundreds of families. The stores of the jadei leilami market, known for selling Herat’s famed hand-embroidered textiles, have been closed for more than a week. The entrances to the historic citadel and minarets also remain shut.

The sense of fear and malaise that has befallen the city is already having an economic toll. In one of Herat’s best-known hotels, guests were forbidden from sleeping in their $73 a night rooms. Instead, they were being told to sleep in tents in the parking lot, or in one of the dozen wooden-and-glass gazebos in the courtyard.

For Jawid, the financial strain is already a big problem. He said he needs to clear at least 250 afghanis, about $3.27, a day to keep up with the cost of renting his rickshaw. In the week since the earthquakes, he has only managed to make a total of 800 afghanis, just under $10.50, which he said will leave him in debt for the month. 

Looking out at the tents full of families not unlike his own, Jawid said he fears for the future of Herat if people can’t get over their fears soon: “If this continues for another week, all of Herat will have gone completely mad.” 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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