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Simple people crushed by giant forces


4 June 1998

by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER Sydney Morning Herald Correspondent in Kol, Northern Afghanistan

They thought the shaking would never cease, the earth moaning and shuddering violently for up to four minutes. When it stopped, many had lost everything.

The village of Kol, 25 kilometres south of the epicentre of Saturday's massive earthquake, is normally home to about 400 people, who survive on the food they grow and animals they herd in this remote pocket of the lofty Hindu Kush mountains.

Now, almost a quarter of them are dead, mainly women and children who were inside their mud-brick homes when the quake, measuring an awesome 6.9 on the Richter Scale, struck late morning when the men and boys were in the fields.

We are on the first United Nations relief helicopter to reach the village, one of more than 50 flattened by the impact of the quake, and hundreds of survivors are waiting to mob the aid workers, begging for help. Disappointment awaits most.

Four days after the quake, the UN has only three helicopters working in the field and there is space on board for only six of the most severely injured. The others wait.

The doctors have no translators to speak the local Farsi language. Diagnosing the most common injuries - fractures and crush damage - is tedious and slow.

A man trying to force his way on board a helicopter to be with a relative is pushed back by armed UN security men.

But the flow of the injured is unceasing. They are carried over the hills on mules, on the backs of their relatives, on stretchers made from the timber beams which supported the mud-brick roofs of their houses, until they collapsed.

More than 4,000 people have been killed in the three worst-hit areas of Shar-i-Buzurg, Cha-Ab, and Rustaq, near Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan.

A smaller quake in the same area in February killed more than 4,000 people. The final number of dead this time will probably exceed that, with the devastation spread over a far wider area than first thought.

The UN has appealed to governments to provide more helicopters because most roads in the region have become impassable, owing to landslides.

But a lack of urgently needed fuel in Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, is also severely constraining the aid effort. To refuel, the helicopters must fly to Tajikistan, 130 kilometres away, leaving just over an hour of flying time for mercy flights before they have to return.

Of four villages surveyed by one of the three UN teams on Tuesday, three were officially listed as "100 per cent destroyed". Barkham was assessed from the air because not even a helicopter could land in the village, perched on a ridge.

The only food being delivered at this stage is to feed patients in the two hospitals and one clinic functioning in the area. For many, water comes from rivers muddied by run-off from the mountains.

As the helicopter lifts off, carrying only six of the thousands of injured survivors, it flies over piles of rubble - wrecked buildings and fresh graves.

On the flight back to Faizabad, aid workers tot up the grim statistics for the day. Three villages - Shirah, Delgy and Barkham - completely destroyed, with at least 62 dead, 63 injured and 21 missing. In Kol, 74 dead, 81 injured and 49 missing.

The noise of the Russian-built chopper frightens two boys being evacuated. One has a badly damaged eye, the other a broken leg. Both are screaming.


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