Noorullah Imam was tending cattle on the slopes behind Soche Payeen, in Afghanistan’s remote Badakhshan province, when the mountain started rumbling, sending large rocks rolling down towards his village. He immediately thought of his five children. But because he was looking after the village’s animals, he had to call a boy to relieve him before he could run home.
Imam found his house flattened. Neighbours had helped his family escape, but all its mud-brick rooms had collapsed. More than a week later, despite visits from government delegations and international charities, Imam’s family still sleeps outside, on a concrete porch.
Jurm, where Soche Payeen is located, is believed to have been the centre of the on 26 October that sent tremors through Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing more than 300 people. in 15 Afghan provinces, with Badakhshan bearing the brunt of the destruction, according to the UN.
But even at the epicentre, relief efforts are slow and insufficient. With the fierce highland winter rapidly approaching, and night-time temperatures already dropping below zero in many places, displaced people face a catastrophic situation, said Suliman Khalisyar, programme manager for Afghan Aid, a British charity.
Vast and sparsely populated, Badakhshan is dotted with mountain villages and laced with rudimentary dirt roads barely passable without a four-wheel drive, even before snowfall. The province is battered by war, slumped in poverty and prone to natural disasters.
Because some of the worst-affected areas, such as , government workers and most NGOs won’t operate there out of fear for their safety. The government insists on coordinating efforts to provide shelter, crucial as temperatures are dropping fast, despite the fact that previous attempts proved lacking. More than 200 families are still waiting for shelter after in the same province, according to Afghan Aid.
“Nobody takes responsibility to provide shelter,” Khalisyar said. “In the worst [affected] districts, many will die.”
With no government assistance, Imam is trying to rebuild the outer wall of his compound alone. He is the family’s sole provider, and keeping his five children fed and warm until spring will be a herculean task. But he is better off than his neighbour, Mohammad Husain. The frail 65-year-old is almost immobile, having lost a leg in war three decades ago. He barely made it out of the house, carried by his wife and children, before the earthquake levelled three rooms and the kitchen wall.
Providing for Husain’s family of 11 will now be even tougher for its two breadwinners, 16-year-old Muneer and his 15-year-old brother. Before the earthquake, they divided their time between school and toiling in the field for £1 ($1.50) a day.
“We go to school for two days, and we work for two days,” Muneer said. With the desperate need to take home cash, education will not be a priority. In any case, their school was one of 41 destroyed or badly damaged across Badakhshan.
Women and children are especially vulnerable in the aftermath of natural disasters. Such events can be severely traumatic, and children face a host of dangers if separated from their families, said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communication at the UN children’s agency, Unicef.
“Children are at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse, they risk being recruited by armed forces or forced into labour,” she said. In addition, malnutrition and disease expose children, in particular, to the violent whims of the Badakhshan winter.
“Many children will lose their lives in the winter,” said Abdul Basir, a village elder in Jurm.
Aid agencies said they would distribute hygiene kits, but little else seemed to be at hand to offer extra protection for women and children. Due to lack of funding, only people whose houses are completely destroyed will receive shelter, according to the agencies. So, for Soche Payeen’s residents, still having a roof over one’s head is a mixed blessing. Virtually all roofs here have long cracks across them.
“When the snow falls, it will melt and seep through the roof and destroy it,” said Abdul Hadi, a resident. “An NGO came and gave us flour, oil and macaroni. But can we build walls with macaroni?”
According to the newly appointed minister of Afghanistan’s national disaster management authority, Wais Barmak, the government has allocated 60m Afghanis ($0.9m) to the relief effort. Some of that will be doled out in batches of 40,000 Afghanis ($615) to families for each lost family member.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) on Monday released $3m from its but, because of an extensive application process, that money is unlikely to be distributed for another few weeks. Meanwhile, those hardest hit in Soche Payeen sleep outside, in biting cold.
“NGOs promised to bring us tents,” said Ismatullah, a resident. “If they don’t, I don’t know what we’ll do.”