Afghanistan declared a national day of mourning yesterday as rescue workers armed with shovels and hand tools abandoned a search for survivors in a landslide that is the war-torn nation’s worst natural disaster on record.
At least 2,000 people are believed dead after the side of a mountain collapsed last week, burying the village of Ab-e-Barak under 40 meters (130 feet) of mud and rocks. An additional 4,000 people have been displaced, according to Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, who provided the death toll on May 3.
Local officials and residents in Badakhshan province had lost hope of finding survivors after recovering only 15 bodies on May 3, according to Naweed Frotan, a spokesman for the province bordering China and Tajikistan.
The 2,000 missing “are all dead by now,” Frotan said by phone yesterday. “We’re unable to bring the bodies out. There’s no way except to abandon them there.” As many as 2,700 people may be buried, according to Badakhshan Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb. Authorities declared the site a mass grave.
“The devastation was beyond comprehension,” Sulman Sarwary, deputy director of programs for Afghanaid, said in a statement appealing for donations. An elderly woman told Sarwary that all her seven sons, who’d gone to a neighboring village to help in the rescue efforts after the first landslide, were killed by a subsequent landslide.
Mohammad Younis Qanooni, Afghanistan’s first vice president, visited the affected villages yesterday and promised to provide aid to the victims, Xinhua reported.
Afghanistan, with a population of about 31 million, is one of the poorest countries in Asia, weakened by decades of warfare and ethnic rivalries. The disaster comes as the nation prepares for its first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001. Results of the first round of elections are due May 14.
The landslides were triggered by heavy rains in the region, where melting snow and seasonal showers make it vulnerable to such calamities. The toll is more than double the 728 lives lost in Afghanistan during floods in May 1991, according to the international emergency disaster database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
Aid organizations are delivering rice, flour, blankets and shelter to the displaced who are now living in tents pitched in the mountainous region, Frotan said.