Mudslide in rural Afghanistan kills hundreds including rescuers

Rescue operation under way as thousands of homes buried in Badakhshan province

Hundreds of people were buried alive in a remote northern corner of Afghanistan yesterday when a mudslide swept through a village and a second collapse then trapped neighbours who had rushed to help, according to local officials.

Thousands of tons of soil and rocks broke from a hill in Badakhshan district near the Tajik border, creating a wave of mud that destroyed everything in its path.

“There are around 1,000 houses in Aab Barik, 300 were buried when this happened, then 600 local people who live in the site went to help but unfortunately the hill collapsed a second time,” said provincial governor Shah Waliullah Adib.

He visited the site with the provincial police chief and, after inspecting the wreckage and speaking to villagers who were spared, they estimated that more than 2,500 people had been trapped. The scale of the devastation meant there was little hope of finding survivors, or even recovering bodies, he said.

“The mud is 10-30m deep, we couldn’t even reach the bodies, so we decided to just pray for them and make the site into a mass grave.”

Badakhshan is poor and fairly isolated, and although the landslide hit not far from the provincial capital, it was in a dangerous area with patchy communication links and a heavy insurgent presence.

If the governor’s estimate of the toll is confirmed, it would make the landslide the country’s deadliest natural disaster since 1998, when two earthquakes each killed several thousand people.

Up to 1,000 casualties
A member of parliament from the province, Mohammad Zakria Sauda, said: "At first a small part of the hill came down. And then, when people went to help, the other big part came down. Casualties could be as many as 1,000 people. Children, women are stuck under the soil."

US president Barack Obama sent a message of condolence. “On behalf of the American people, our thoughts are with the people of Afghanistan, who have experienced an awful tragedy,” he said.

Officials said it was too early to discuss what caused the landslide, although it came after weeks of heavy rain at a time when snow melt from the mountains is already swelling streams and rivers.

Serious flooding last week killed hundreds and displaced thousands more, and many in Badakhshan were aware of landslide risks. The previous day, a smaller landslide in the area damaged 50 houses, but no one was killed.

President Hamid Karzai ordered emergency relief work to start immediately, and Nato forces said they were ready to help the Afghan government with search and rescue if needed.

The United Nations confirmed that hundreds had been killed and said it was helping search for survivors and provide food and shelter.

“The number of deceased has increased to 350 and significant displacement is expected,” the UN said in a statement.

“The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs is helping with co-ordinating local authorities to rescue those still trapped.”

– (Guardian service)

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing