'Panicked and traumatised' Afghan earthquake survivors too afraid to go home

3 min read
21 October, 2023

Afghan earthquake survivor Negar could hardly bear a single night in her half-demolished village, for fear of more aftershocks, before she asked to be sent back to the city. 

Negar is one of the thousands who have fled their homes after a series of earthquakes with magnitudes measuring between 4.2 and 6.3 jolted western Afghanistan this month, killing at least 1,000 people.

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Fify-year-old Negar, who like many Afghans goes by one name, was taken with her family back to her village of Nayeb Rafi in Herat province but was gripped by panic that the house would collapse.

"There are more than a hundred children who have lost either their mothers or fathers, (how) can they live in that deserted land again?"

"When we went to the village, we passed out and they brought us back to the city unconscious," she said from a makeshift aid camp in Herat city, the provincial capital.

"There was the noise of machinery pulling the corpses from the ground. We saw that and it increased our fear and panic. When there are seven or eight hundred families, some of them dead and half of them alive, wouldn't you be afraid?"

The quake series began on October 7 with a 6.3 tremor and at least eight powerful aftershocks that devastated rural villages northwest of Herat city.

The Taliban government said more than 1,000 people were killed, while the World Health Organization (WHO) put the figure at nearly 1,400 by late Saturday.

Ghulam Sakhi has spent the past 12 days in a small tent set up in a city centre square, believing it's safer than the rural areas.

"Until the threat of aftershocks is gone, we are forced to stay here. We are afraid. Our house is also no longer a place where we could live, it has cracks all over it," the 42-year-old said.

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Yahya Kalilah, the Doctors Without Borders programme head in Afghanistan, told AFP this week that many survivors have been left "panicked and traumatised".

"People are not feeling safe. I will assure you 100 percent, no one will sleep in their house."

Providing shelter on a large scale will be a challenge for Afghanistan's Taliban authorities, who seized power in August 2021 and have fractious relations with international aid organisations.

Afghanistan is already suffering a dire humanitarian crisis as winter approaches, with the widespread withdrawal of foreign aid that followed the Taliban's return to power.

The WHO reported that the "poor, overcrowded environment with limited access to water and winter essentials like warm blankets and clothes will likely lead to an increase in the incidence and severity of infectious diseases".

Aziz, a displaced shepherd, also returned to Herat city after just one night in what was left of Nayeb Rafi village.

"Those who have been under the rubble and those who haven't — both are terrified," he said. "There are more than a hundred children who have lost either their mothers or fathers, (how) can they live in that deserted land again?"

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