Afghan quake kills the young

SUN JOURNAL

Shocks: Most children in the country's small towns and villages stay indoors after dark, and hundreds were killed Monday when their homes collapsed on them.

March 29, 2002|By Jeffrey Gettleman | Jeffrey Gettleman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NAHRIN, Afghanistan - Abdul Majid stands in a hillside cemetery, staring at the four little mounds at his feet.

"When I look at them," he says, "my children suddenly appear before my eyes."

His neighbor Palwasha paces a ruined courtyard with dusty baby clothes in her hands.

"Allah, Allah, Allah," she softly cries.

In market towns like this one, the streets are usually teeming with kids flying kites, playing soccer and trailing visitors. But today, there is a strange hush in Nahrin.

The children are missing.

Aid workers have been delayed in getting here by land mines churned up by aftershocks. There is still confusion about the number of fatalities from Monday's earthquake, estimated at 800 to 2,000.

But one thing is clear: Most of them were young.

In one village, 20 of the 23 victims were under 16. Farmer after farmer tells heart-wrenching stories of watching roofs crash down on their families and being powerless to dig them out.

In another village, six children died in one mud hut.

"I would say 80 percent of our victims, maybe 90 percent, were not yet 15," says Sayed Askar, an elder in Nahrin, the hardest-hit town.

Children here, in this wheat and melon farming district 105 miles north of the capital, Kabul, tend not to venture out of their mud-walled compounds after dark. When the 6.1-magnitude quake hit Monday evening, most were in their homes.

No one knows exactly how many children died. The interim government is sticking to its initial estimate of 1,200 fatalities, adults and children, although Nahrin village elders say the total is closer to 2,000.

United Nations officials provided a much lower figure of 800 but acknowledge they had surveyed only 42 villages out of 78, in one of three districts affected.

"We are not getting the high casualty counts we had feared," says Farhana Faruqi, the U.N. coordinator for northern Afghanistan. "But there's entire areas we still need to assess."

By Wednesday, 200 aid workers were busy scheduling food drops, making assessments and handing out the first tents and blankets, using Nahrin as a base.

But the earth continued to ripple, and one 5.3-magnitude aftershock Wednesday toppled even more buildings, leaving some areas of Nahrin a wasteland of loose bricks and flattened houses. Two mosques and the main school were also destroyed.

More than 10,000 villagers are homeless, and aid officials said one of the top priorities is finding them places to live.

Because of the land mines dislodged by the aftershocks, crews trying to deliver food and tents must move gingerly on roads once considered safe, the United Nations and private aid groups told the Associated Press. Other shipments are being brought in by British and U.S. helicopters.

"When the land moves like this, it litters the areas that have been de-mined," says Chris Hyslop, an emergency program officer with the aid group Mercy Corps. "I can't speak for all the humanitarian agencies, but we don't go anywhere it isn't safe."

Nahrin sits on queasy ground, and every year there's at least one earthquake. Earlier this month, a 7.2-magnitude quake shook neighboring Samangan province, killing 100 people. Although Monday's quake was of a lower magnitude, the U.S. Geological Survey says it was relatively shallow - about 40 miles beneath the surface - and therefore more dangerous.

As Majid stands over the four fresh graves dug into the hillside, he vows to live in the fields for the rest of his life.

"Never again under a roof," he says.

A friend tries to cheer him up. Foreigners are here, the friend says. Much food will be coming.

Majid looks at the ground.

"For whom?" he asks sharply. "My mouths don't need to be fed anymore."

Jeffrey Gettleman writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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