Earthquake rocks region where death is familiar

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The Independent Online

In an icy town called Nahrin, where an earthquake killed at least 2,000 people yesterday, the world will finally confront what Afghanistan has become: an entire country reduced to a disaster area. Worse than a disaster, a catastrophe

In an icy town called Nahrin, where an earthquake killed at least 2,000 people yesterday, the world will finally confront what Afghanistan has become: an entire country reduced to a disaster area. Worse than a disaster, a catastrophe

Anywhere else, a calamity on the scale of yesterday's quake would be apocalyptic. In Afghanistan, after more than 20 years of continuous war, after four years of drought and famine, after the Red Army, after the Taliban, after the American bombs, an earthquake that could end up killing thousands is just one more disaster on top of all the others.

The survivors are in desperate danger from cold and disease. There are believed to be up to 20,000 of them, homeless and sleeping rough in freezing temperatures.

Relief workers were rushing to the scene yesterday to be met by the sight of 20,000 men, women and children huddled together for warmth.

But children were already dying of the cold in this country. Some died in a refugee camp in Herat in January, under the nose of the international community.

The people among the rubble of their homes have no food or water. The quake struck in a country where people were already so hungry they had to eat grass and so desperate that they were selling their four-day-old children.

Many of the poor will have nothing but a few thin layers of cotton to keep out the cold: in Afghanistan the poorest cannot even afford a blanket to wrap around themselves.

There are at least two documented cases so far this year of Afghans selling their children. Probably far more that go unreported. Often the parents believe it is the only way they and the child can stay alive. A child can fetch $60 (£42), enough to keep a family alive for several days – and anyone rich enough to buy the child will be rich enough to keep him or her alive.

In the streets around the survivors yesterday, lie the decomposing bodies of the dead. The risk of disease spreading is high. And these people's immune systems are already weakened by malnutrition.

All of this is in an area that has seen plenty of death recently. The affected area has a large Pashtun population, a minority island of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, who have been targeted in revenge attacks by the area's other ethnic groups because the Taliban were dominated by Pashtuns.

But it is not the soldiers who will bear the brunt of the earthquake. If there is any food to be had in Afghanistan, it is the fighting men who get it. It is the children who will suffer most. Afghanistan's refugee camps are already full of malnourished children, four-year-olds the size of two-year-olds, their stomachs swollen, their eyes permanently glazed.

Although Nahrin is only about 100 miles north of Kabul, it is cut off from the capital by the Hindu Kush mountains, and relief will have to come from Mazar-i-Sharif, a four-and-a-half hour drive. The road to Nahrin passes through an area that is not safe, where robbers hold up travellers and inter-ethnic tensions flare up.

The quickest road north from Kabul passes through the Salang tunnel. Earlier this year, several people froze to death on that road when they were trapped by snow drifts. Some help can be rushed to the scene by helicopters but they have to fly across most treacherous mountains in terrible weather.

In the icy hell around Nahrin, the world will confront an Afghanistan very different from the pictures of women throwing off their burqas and international troops patrolling the streets of Kabul. It will confront what it has allowed Afghanistan to become.

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