Afghan landslide: Injured 6-year-old recalls 'bomb' sound, darkness

Six-year-old Abdul Maqsood was swamped by a wall of mud that swallowed up his home and some 300 others around him in Friday's massive landslide in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan

Death toll varies from few hundred to thousands, rescuers give up on finding survivors

Displaced Afghan children sit outside their tent near the site of a landslide at the Argo district in Badakhshan province May 4, 2014. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Six-year-old Abdul Maqsood stood outside his neighbour's simple mud-brick home, staring aghast at the damage caused by a landslide which had slammed into his village in remote northeast Afghanistan. Then the rumbling started.

Maqsood had no idea that the entire side of the bare mountain above him, drenched by a week of heavy rain, had fractured and was about to cave in.

The second, even bigger landslide happened so quickly that Maqsood had no time to run. He was swamped by a wall of mud that swallowed up his home and some 300 others around him, taking hundreds, possibly thousands of lives in Afghanistan's worst natural disaster in a decade. 

"It sounded like a bomb and I screamed, called my father and mother for help," he told Reuters on Sunday from a makeshift clinic in a tent where the injured were being treated by local and Red Cross medics.

"It was so dark and dusty everywhere and I didn't know what happened," said Maqsood, his head and leg wrapped in bandages.

The boy's father, a shovel already in hand after helping victims from the first landslide, rushed back to find his son. Twenty minutes later, he dragged Maqsood from the earth and debris.

In one of the poorest areas of Afghanistan - where most people do not have electricity and roads are almost non-existent - Maqsood's family was lucky: his mother and brother were also saved.

The United Nations on Sunday put the death toll from Friday's massive landslide in Badakhshan province, bordering Tajikistan, at up to 500. Local officials say the number killed could be as high as 2,700. 
Survivors sit on a hillside Saturday as others watch the rescue effort near the site of a landslide that buried Abi-Barik village in Badakhshan province, northeastern Afghanistan. (Amir Shah/The Associated Press)

It is unlikely the final figure will ever be known, as officials say it is impossible to retrieve the bodies buried in up to 50 metres of mud and debris.

"We cannot continue the search and rescue operation anymore, as the houses are under metres of mud," said Gul Mohammad Bedaar, deputy governor of Badakhshan province. "We will offer prayers for the victims and make the area a mass grave."

Fears of another landslide prompted officials to evacuate the remaining 700 families, or about 4,000 people, to safer ground nearby. They may never return to live in their homes in Aab Bareek.

Villagers sleeping outside in the cold

Afghan army helicopters delivered water, food, medicine and tents on Sunday, while aid agencies and local relief workers slowly arrived after a difficult journey over a pot-holed road.

The UN agency in charge of relief operations, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the displaced were largely being accommodated with host families, with some in tents.

But villagers expressed their anger with the relief effort, saying that many had already spent two nights in the open in near freezing conditions.
Afghans search for survivors after a massive landslide landslide buried a village Friday, in Badakhshan province, northeastern Afghanistan, which Afghan and UN officials say left hundreds of dead and missing missing. (Ahmad Zubair/The Associated Press)

"At least they should give us a shelter to live in," said Bibi Nawroz, who said she had lost eight members of her family in the disaster.

Local officials echoed their concerns, calling on the government and foreign aid agencies to act more quickly.

"There are thousands of families who are in desperate need of help and hundreds of other homes are at risk, or possibly another landslide," said deputy governor Bedaar.

"The government and relief organizations must act swiftly and send us more aid and equipment. What we have so far is not enough."

Over the past fortnight, about a third of the country has been flooded due to heavy seasonal rains and snow melt, killing 159 people.

The United Nations says 71,000 have been affected in a country prone to natural disasters due to its geographical location and years of environmental degradation.

Despite offers of help from the United States and NATO-led coalition troops battling Taliban insurgents, the Afghan government says it can manage on its own, with the assistance of aid agencies.

Relations between Kabul and Washington are at an all-time low over President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a security agreement allowing a small U.S. force to remain in the country at the end of the year.

Twelve years after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power, foreign combat troops will withdraw on Dec. 31 leaving security in Afghan hands.

The United States wants to keep a force of less than 10,000 troops there for counter-insurgency and training purposes.

Badakshan province is in the northeast region of Afghanistan. (Google Maps)