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In Afghanistan's Remote North, Rescuers Battle the Elements as Avalanche Death Toll Tops 200

Heavy snowfall has set off a string of avalanches and floods that have claimed lives across several provinces — and officials fear that more fatalities could still be discovered.

by Ali M Latifi
Feb 27 2015, 5:15pm

Image via Reuters

The death toll from a devastating series of avalanches in Afghanistan has risen to at least 200, as rescue workers struggle to reach remote areas of the country's mountainous north.

Three days after the worst-hit Panjshir province was deluged by a snowfall that locals say surpasses anything in living memory, setting off a chain of avalanches, at least four areas remain completely inaccessible — and officials fear they will discover more fatalities.

"It is the most remote areas of Panjshir that have been most affected," acting provincial governor Abdul Rahman Kabiri told VICE News from his office on Thursday.

At least 160 lives have been lost in Panjshir and another 40 people have been identified as missing. Another 41 deaths have been reported across the northern and eastern provinces of Badakhshan, Nuristan, Laghman and Nangarhar, and Bamiyan in the center of the country.

Panjshir, famed for its natural beauty, has been transformed. Gone are the familiar green and blue hues of the province's fields, streams and mountains, in their place only white, as layer upon layer of snow conceal vast stretches of land.

Image by Ali M. Latifi

From young people to elders who have spent decades in Panjshir, almost everyone VICE News spoke to said the same thing: "We have never seen a winter like this."

The trees that bear berries, apricots and apples — known as some of the best in the country — have been ripped apart or bent under the heavy snowfall.

Paryan district, home to 3,902 people across 67 villages stretching along the farthest reaches of the province, is said to have suffered the worst of the avalanches.

Amrullah, 25, said he was traveling with friends by car to Paryan from the provincial capital of Bazarak when the snow began to fall early on Tuesday morning.

Forced to abandon their two Ford Rangers and walk back towards the the city, Amrullah and his companions say their vehicles have been buried under snow for two days.

The Malast Pass region, near the provincial capital of Bazarak, was slowly coating over with snow when Amrullah reached it; the group barely made it through before an avalanche hit.

A shepherd family — a father and his two young children, aged two and four — remained buried under the snow in their mountainside home on Tuesday.

Locals said they could hear the sounds of human and animal voices coming from underneath the snow.

"I've been coming to Panjshir all my life but never seen it like this. The snow and damage rendered places unrecognizable. I couldn't believe I was in Panjshir," Ahmad Zubair Massoud, an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, told VICE News.

Image by Ali M. Latifi

The 26-year-old adviser traveled through eight areas of his native province, where he distributed relief aid to more than 150 people.

Zubair said he was proud to be "the first to bring relief to people who lost their mothers, fathers and children" in the snow.

He began collecting private donations for the coal, oil, flour, rice, biscuits and blankets from his friends and businessmen when the death toll was still 24. By Wednesday evening that number had risen to 100.

On the outskirts of Dara district, Abdul Manan, a 23-year-old student, said most of the damage occurred on Tuesday.

"This is the all the result of only one day of snowfall," Manan told VICE News.

By Thursday, 28 people had been freed from underneath the snow in Dara. Another four remained buried, Manan said.

Officials say some 200 people have already been rescued, but that a lack of electricity during the evening hours has greatly limited the relief efforts. With few tools at their disposal early on, locals told VICE News they had little choice other than to dig through the layers of snow with their bare hands.

Image by Ali M. Latifi

The snowfall came after what was otherwise being lamented as an overly dry winter.

With little snow or rain, residents in Kabul had feared a repeat of the droughts that devastated the entire nation over the five years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001.

In the capital, residents across the city are still reeling after being without power for nearly five days due to damage from the snowstorms.

Residents in Kabul's Karte Parwan neighborhood told VICE News they were lucky to have electricity "a few hours each night."

Officials speaking to VICE News on Friday said most of the damage was caused by three large power lines downed along the Salang Pass, a 2.5-mile pass along the Hindu Kush mountains that connects the north and south of Afghanistan.

Abdul Razique Samadi, CEO of the Bereshna Group, the nation's main utility company, said blockages caused by heavy snow and rain over the last week made it impossible to repair the lines.

"We understand the people's frustrations and are working diligently to restore power", Samadi told VICE News from the Salang, where he is overseeing the repair efforts.

In the eastern provinces of Laghman and Nangarhar, flash floods destroyed homes, crops and blocked off roads leading to Kabul. Officials in Laghman reported three deaths. In Nangarhar, one person lost their life in the floods.

In a statement issued on Thursday, Ghani said he was "deeply grieved by the loss of lives" in the disaster.

Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani's chief executive, also from Panjshir, reached out to the governor and asked for helicopters to be dispatched to aid in the relief efforts.

Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Abdullah, said in a statement that the chief executive had ordered government entities to "spend their human and financial resources to rescue" those buried beneath the snow.

Vehicles belonging to Abdullah were spotted in Panjshir early on Thursday.

But weather forecasts predict more snow on Monday and Tuesday, further delaying relief efforts.

"We are still working to free people from these avalanches," Kabiri, the caretaker governor of Panjshir, said. "There's very little we can do to prepare until all the roads are cleared and the current victims are helped."

Around 40 miles of road had yet to be cleared, he added.

The Kabul government has dispatched more than 1,000 members of the Afghan National Army to Panjshir to aid in the relief efforts, while Ghani visited the area on Friday.

Follow Ali M. Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye