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Afghan villagers dig through snow to find victims of avalanche; 22 discovered in mosque
RAWANAK, Afghanistan (AP) ' 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."
"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.