'Maybe It's A Punishment From Allah'

Saeed Anwar was drinking tea with his family on Monday evening when the earth began to shake. He grabbed his wife, and they rushed first into their courtyard, then outside as the walls of their house in northern Afghanistan collapsed around them.

"We were trying to run, but the earthquake wouldn't let us," says Anwar, sitting on a crumbling wall opposite where his house used to stand and smoking a cigarette, "It kept pushing us down. I thought we were running backward."

It was around 7:15 p.m., and the streets of Anwar's village had bloomed into a roiling dust storm as houses fell one after another along his road. "Maybe we did something wrong," he says quietly, the men sitting with him on the wall nodding their heads in agreement. "Maybe it's a punishment from Allah."

Aftershocks from last Monday's quake were still rippling through Nahrin district today as people from some 100 villages struggled to understand just what was happening to them. Down the street from Anwar's house, Bismullah, a father of 12, surveyed the rubble that was once his house. Inside a green courtyard, his four sons sat on massive piles of mud and stone.

Bismullah's mother died in the quake--yet another blow to a family that already has suffered extensively in Afghanistan's litany of natural and political woes. The family had moved to the village of to Masjid-i-Saidakim just two months ago, their second relocation since being chased out of their home in the Shamali Plain during Taliban rule.

"It was a refugee life, but it was good," says Bismullah of his latest home, looking at a blossoming white pear tree poking out of a huge pile of rubble, "Now I don't know what to do." As he spoke, tremors rumbled through the village again, sending people scattering down the streets and clambering off piles of rubble.

Monday's disaster was felt as little more than a longish series of tremors in Kabul, but here at the Nahrin district epicenter, it slammed through the dozens of surrounding villages like a shockwave. United Nations and relief officials estimate the dead at around 700, but say the number could climb as they continue to scour the countryside looking for damage. Another 5,000 families are thought to be indirectly affected by the quake. Not all of the affected towns have been properly searched, leading some officials to believe that the casualty figures may continue to climb. So far, however, the numbers are beneath early estimates and remarkably low considering the extent of the damage in most of the towns. Virtually all of Nahrin's old city has been destroyed, and the town of Masjid-i-Saidakim is reduced to teetering piles of crumbling stone and wood. The roads themselves are split by fault lines and children are tiptoeing along them peering down into the fissures. Nearby, two women emerge from the destruction and head toward a door which now stands alone, half-open, while the walls around it have simply vanished. "We haven't looked at all of the villages yet," said Stephanie Bunker, a U.N. spokeswoman, "The initial [death-toll estimates] were quite high. Once people heard there was an earthquake, they feared the worst."

Even as the relief effort moves ahead, tremors continued to wreak havoc. Russian Kamaz trucks filled with water pitchers, blankets and carpets rolled into Masjid-i-Saidakim today, but the small aftershocks continued to demolish buildings already made fragile by the initial quake. A crowd of angry men gathered around one truck, fighting for supplies while local aid workers beat them off with sticks. When a tremor shook the town, tearing at least one house away from its foundations, a crowd poured into the streets again. As it quieted down, a burqa-clad woman ran through a nearby grassy meadow, wailing. Some nearby men said she had come to the village to visit her daughter. When she arrived, she found the daughter dead under the rubble of her house.

Others were still searching for their missing relatives. Mir Ali, 75, arrived in the district capital of Nahrin after hearing about the earthquake from neighbors. The day before it struck, he had sent his two grandsons and the family donkey for food and supplies to a nearby town. The boys were late, however, and decided to stay in Nahrin's "old city" for the night. He hasn't heard from them since, and fears they're dead. "I lost everything," he says. "My grandsons, my donkey, a lot of money."

Sitting on a bed at a Doctors Without Borders tent hospital, he leans forward and whispers, in the dim glow of a flashlight, a poem he learned years before:

Relief workers say they have provided thousands of blankets and tents to the newly homeless, but at least in some places the aid seems in short supply. Many people here have already suffered from a three-year drought, and while water was never easy to find, it has now become nearly impossible. Many domestic animals like donkeys, which residents used to transport water, also perished in the quake. Relief workers say they are hampered by the remoteness of the location and the fact that the surrounding area is still riddled with mines.

U.N. helicopters are flying in as much aid as possible--another 1,400 tents arrived today--and more is expected in the coming days. American Chinook choppers brought in medical supplies. Even Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader, flew in with a message of support for the victims. "All the people of Afghanistan share your pain," Karzai told a crowd of several hundred survivors and aid workers.

But Karzai's words brought little comfort to Mohammed Ayub, a village elder from Qaracha, where 20 people died and all of its 350 homes were destroyed. Ayub spent 24 hours buried underneath the rubble before some neighboring villagers came to rescue him. By the time they had pulled him out, his wife, son and grandchild were dead.

As he sat in the dust today, banging two stones together and massaging a nasty bruise on his right leg, Ayub recalled how his family had moaned as they waited through the night for rescue. "With this cold weather, how are we going to survive," he asked. The men around him had no answer.