In Herat, People Still Sleep In Tents Fearing Aftershocks

Photo: OCHA/Sayed Habib Bidell

Life is yet to return to normal for families affected by the devastating earthquake last month. Hundreds of families are left in the open spaces in harsh winter conditions, sleeping inside makeshift camps, on the streets, or in public parks. Many more fear additional tremors if they return to their beds. Thousands have evacuated their homes and rural settlements for safety.     

On October 7, a magnitude 6.3 quake—the deadliest in the country in two decades—struck a densely populated and remote area in Herat province. It was followed by several aftershocks and more quakes on October 10 and 15— each measuring around 6.3 magnitude. Altogether, they left a trail of destruction for nearly two million people as villages were leveled and, in some instances, entire families had been buried under the rubble. More than 43,400 people were directly affected in the six districts. The damages were particularly devastating in Zindajan and Injil.

Mohammad Alam, 45, was about to leave his mud-brick home on October 7 when everything started trembling, shaking him side to side. The roof quickly collapsed and the entire home crashed down to a pile of rubble. Later, when people dug up the debris, they found Alam alive. But his wife, two sons, and a daughter could not survive. “My life has broken apart,” Alam told KabulNow. “The rubble perished my family. How would I live without them.”

While the true immensity of death and destruction is unclear, at least 1,500 were confirmed dead and more than 11,000 injured, with 90% of victims women and children, according to the UN. As many as 21,000 homes and hamlets were severely damaged or destroyed, leaving families without shelter, food, water, medical assistance, and other necessities. Tens of thousands of people lost their livestock and the crops they had just harvested amid consecutive droughts. Even the city’s most resilient war survivors, its historical monuments, were scathed.

The devastation has compounded crises in a poverty-stricken country where more than two-thirds of the population requires humanitarian assistance to survive. The ruling Taliban are too ill-prepared and ill-equipped to be able to respond effectively and comprehensively.

With a health system already stretched too thin, thousands of people remain outdoors in cramped and crowded tents to fend for themselves, further exposed to diseases and other risks, including physical and sexual violence.

“We sleep on the streets and only turn to our home during the day for urgent needs,” said Shereen Gul, who lives with her family of six in a tent in Mastofiyat Square, one of the most densely populated areas in Herat city. “We fear additional tremors could harm us.” Gul’s two children have been terrified from the effects of the disaster to the extent that they sometimes wake up from a nightmare of being trapped under a roof collapsed by an earthquake. She said she would take her children to a physiatrist to seek help once the fear and anxiety of tremors and aftershocks have eased on her.

Aziz Ahmad, who has also been living with his family in a makeshift shelter following the third quake in mid-October, shared a similar account. “We are living in a state of shock and anxiety, afraid of returning to our home. The recent events have undermined the psychological condition of my little daughter. She barely eats anything.”

Lack of access to information and the Taliban’s restrictions on free media have led to rumors and misinformation, further impeding the strength and resilience of families to cope in the face of trauma. “I have not been home for nearly a month due to fears and rumors of additional aftershocks,” said Maryam, a pregnant mother who sleeps in a tent outside with her family.

Although the high death toll was a result of the devastating quakes, the fright and terror of the quakes also caused sudden deaths resulting from cardiovascular causes. Abdul Aziz, a resident of Police District 15th of Herat city, told KabulNow that the quake on October 10 triggered his mother a heart attack. After she was rushed to a hospital, she died, Aziz said, adding that his mother was a healthy woman.

Doctors and healthcare workers in Herat are struggling to cope as the lack of professionals, medicines, and equipment has significantly hindered services. Some hospitals have extended makeshift camps to treat patients because they cannot take any more. Medics in the city fear quake survivors with mental and psychological issues have more than doubled in recent weeks. “In recent days, more than 2,000 people—mainly women and children—have reached us for mental health help,” said a health official in Herat’s largest provincial hospital.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says the multi-sectoral Herat Earthquake Response Plan requires about $93.6 million to support 114,000 earthquake-affected people in Herat, which includes providing shelter, food, cash vouchers, winter clothing and blankets, household items as well as recovery efforts and emergency healthcare and protection. However, it has met only 26% of the appeal as of November 2 due to a funding shortfall.

“The situation on the ground is desperate and winter is fast approaching,” said Stephen Rodriques, UN Development Programme’s Resident Representative in Afghanistan. “Our goal is to help these communities restore basic infrastructure, especially shelter, and return to normalcy as quickly as possible.” He urged for additional funding, saying existing resources are not enough.

Many affected families say that they have not received necessary humanitarian assistance while others claim that the Taliban are interfering in aid delivery or selectively distributing aid to specific areas.

“I haven’t received any aid assistance,” said Ahmad [alias], who lost his sister and a daughter in the quake that rocked the Siya Aab village in Zenda Jan district. “I also lost in the quake everything I had built. I have been living in a tent of my own since then.”

Askar, a resident of Naieb Rafe village, has not received assistance, too. “We were surveyed by several relief groups who promised to provide us with proper tent, but we have not heard anything since,” he told KabulNow, not knowing how long it will take him to find a proper shelter. “We are four families living inside a single tent.”

The situation has worsened similarly for Abdul Qadir, another resident of Siya Aab village. “We can’t sleep well these days. We don’t have a proper tent and not enough blanket to keep ourselves warm in this freezing weather,” he said, adding, “All we have left is some rice, cooking oil, and a few duvets.”