Wails echoed across what was left of the village when the ambulance arrived. Inside was the body of a 12-year-old girl, Roqia. She had died in a nearby hospital Tuesday morning, days after a devastating earthquake hit this stretch of northwestern Afghanistan and sent her mud-brick home crashing down on top of her.
The vehicle drove to the top of a nearby hill where mounds of dirt marked around 70 freshly dug graves. A crowd of men gathered and opened its back door, gently pulling out the girl, whose small frame was wrapped in a thick, white blanket.
Seeing her, her uncle, Shir Ahmad, stumbled backward. “Oh God, oh God,” he cried, gasping for breath. A man slipped his arms around his back to steady him as he sank to the ground in sobs.
“I lost four relatives,” the man said. “Don’t cry.”
Since Saturday, when the deadliest earthquakes to strike Afghanistan in decades occurred, hundreds of Afghans in one of the worst-hit districts, Zinda Jan, have been struggling to come to terms with the almost unfathomable destruction.
In a matter of minutes, a handful of entire villages — once clusters of mud-brick homes, their thick, beige walls blending into the endless desert — were transformed into mounds of dust. Nearly everyone in the area lost at least one relative when their homes crumbled. Many have lost most, if not all, of their immediate family.
The district is little more than a stretch of desert punctuated by villages where people live hand-to-mouth along Afghanistan’s western border. Most families survive by growing wheat, corn and figs in modest gardens and shepherding small livestock herds. Many men work as day laborers in neighboring Iran, earning only a few hundred dollars a month.
By Tuesday, the death toll from two 6.3-magnitude quakes had climbed to at least 1,053 people, according to the United Nations, while Taliban officials have said the true figure could be closer to 2,000. The vast majority of those dead belonged to only 11 villages, some of which lost a quarter or more of their populations in the quake. Early Wednesday, another 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit near Herat City, sending people running out of their homes for the second time in five days.
Across the hamlets struck by the earlier disasters, the grief and loss are palpable. The air is tinged with the smell of rotting flesh — whether from victims whose bodies have yet to be recovered or from livestock that were crushed under rubble, no one is quite sure. Rows upon rows of dirt mounds marking mass graves now outline the edges of villages that have been decimated. Sporadic screams and sobs pierce the quiet as waves of anguish overwhelm the few survivors.
In Seya Aab village, moments after the men lowered Roqia’s body into a grave on Tuesday afternoon, a young man whose mother had also been killed collapsed on top of her grave in tears. “Oh God, oh God, please help me,” he yelled.
Farther down the hill, now a newly dug cemetery, a grandfather let out a cry and dropped to his knees, drawing a crowd around him. Minutes later, another man howled in tears and screamed: “They are all of us! They are all of us!”
In Nayeb Rafi, a nearby village, the only building to survive the quake was a concrete school built by an aid group. Every single mud-brick home was destroyed. Residents told a visiting team of journalists from The New York Times that they estimate that of the roughly 2,000 people living there, 750 were killed.
At the edge of the hamlet, a man in his 70s sat on the edge of a pile of mud brick — what was once his home — in a daze. He had wrapped a hefty brown blanket dug from the rubble around his shoulders to protect himself from the chilly morning air. Behind him, black smoke from a small fire another survivor had lit for warmth clouded the sky.
The man, who goes by one name, Zarin, said he had just slaughtered a sheep for his family to eat on Saturday when the earth beneath him began to shake violently, throwing him to the ground. When the convulsions finally ended, he was up to his chest in crumbled mud brick. He could hear a child’s voice crying for help but could barely see anything amid clouds of white dust, he said.
When he finally pried himself free from the rubble, he began frantically digging with his hands where his house once stood. He and another villager pulled out his granddaughter, alive, then turned their attention to where they heard two women’s voices shouting for help.
“I could hear them crying: ‘Father! Uncle! Brother! Help me! I’m still alive!’” Zarin recalled. They managed to dig out one woman who was pregnant. She was bloodied and coughing up dust, but alive, he said. By the time they found the other woman, it was too late.
“Everything is gone,” he said.
Nearby, a teenage boy sat outside a bright blue makeshift tent, decorated with waves and palm trees, that an aid organization had given him the day prior. He had been walking in a nearby pasture with his family’s eight sheep when the quake struck. He abandoned the livestock and ran to his home, only to find a pile of dust — and silence. Beneath it, his mother, his father, his younger sister and two brothers had all died.
“I don’t even know what happened to the sheep,” the boy, Khan Mohammad, 18, said, staring blankly at the horizon.
Hours after the quake hit on Saturday, volunteers from the nearby Herat City and government workers made their way through the desert dunes and rough roads to the village, helping residents pull their loved ones from the rubble and shuttling injured people to a nearby hospital.
But by Tuesday, efforts to rescue people had ended. Instead, volunteer crews armed with shovels and excavators knew their task had become more somber: Recovering the remains of those missing, any hope they might still be alive gone.
One man, Sirajuddin, 45, worked alongside his brother and uncle with a shovel and pickax to recover what they could: a bag of flour here, a pan there.
“Where is Wais?” he asked his uncle, Naeem, 58, who had just returned from visiting injured relatives in the hospital in Herat City that morning.
“He was with his daughter, she’s OK,” he replied.
“What about Zahra?” Sirajuddin, who goes by one name, asked. Naeem shrugged, the cousin’s fate unknown.
Explaining what was once their close-knit community, the men rattled off the names of their neighbors, and the loss each one of them just incurred.
There was Jan Mohammad, a farmer, whose wife and two daughters died. Next door to him was Nazar, a man in his 60s who died alongside his 5-year-old and 2-year-old grandsons. Further down was Gafar, whose daughter was killed; Sataar, whose brother and two sons were killed; and a widow, Maryam, whose 18-year-old daughter died. And then there was Ahmad’s family of five. Only his daughter and son survived.
As Sirajuddin dug, a forest green police vehicle roared through town, an officer calling through its loudspeaker for people to go to the edge of the city to help improve a mass gravesite where around 300 people were buried the night before.
There, hundreds of men — mostly volunteers from villages across the province — picked up shovels and began tossing dirt on top of six rows of graves. Every two or three feet they placed a stone, an imprecise but symbolic way to differentiate each person buried in the ditches.
One volunteer, Abdi Mohammadi, 45, paused to look over the gravesite. Then he shook his head.
“This place has seen the wrath of God,” he said.