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A family effort

By Amanda Williamson

The earthquake that rocked the province of Takhar in north-eastern Afghanistan in early February claimed some 4,750 lives and rendered a further 20,000 people homeless. An emergency response team brought help to the survivors by an unusual combination of daring air drops, donkey caravans and helicopter distributions. This operation was also the first to implement the Movement’s new agreement, mobilizing its combined resources to provide maximum support for the victims.

The “family” gathering around a gas-lit dinner in Rostaq was a colourful palette of people, reflecting the truly international nature of the Afghanistan earthquake response team.

It was heartening to share a sense of exhausted satisfaction amongst the team of ICRC, International Federation and Afghan Red Crescent staff – particularly following the daily battle against the climatic challenges which greeted our efforts to reach the victims.

Here could be felt a genuine team spirit which sprang from a united desire to fulfil our task on behalf of those suffering, and from the usual camaraderie that is generated among people living through difficult moments and enduring conditions which could at best be described as basic.


Nature’s havoc

Our difficulties were of course humbly diminished in the light of the suffering endured by the earthquake survivors in this remote Afghan province. The first image of the havoc which nature had wrought in those few life-altering seconds was shocking. One man described how the ground had literally swallowed up his whole village. The flimsy mud homes designed this way for centuries had simply disintegrated. Children had strange glazed looks on their faces; they were terrified of darkness falling as it was in the evening that the earth started this strange rumbling and their homes crumbled around them.

Then there was the misery etched on the faces of the men who had decided to leave their homes and take their families into the cramped indignity of a collective centre, not wanting to tolerate these conditions but too afraid to return to face the threat that had driven them away.

The task facing the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was daunting. Most of the villages affected by the earthquake were perched precariously on the side or the top of the mountains which are a characteristic feature of the area. They were already remote, but weather conditions, the like of which had not been seen in many years in Afghanistan, made access even more difficult.

A veil of fog descended on Rostaq to ensure that planes and helicopters could not fly; the continuous snowfalls turned the ground to slush which confounded the most hardy of trucks. One night a team of ICRC and International Federation delegates spent the night in their car lodged in mud in the middle of nowhere and woke to find the vehicle surrounded by wolves.

The fact that we knew that families were sleeping in the open air in freezing temperatures meant that the tension mounted as the climatic bad luck all but paralysed the action. Less important but adding to the feeling of frustration was the pressure generated by the media who were beginning to peddle their “Where is the aid?” stories to the waiting world and, of course, the anxiety in Geneva which managed to penetrate to us even though we were worlds away in northern Afghanistan.

Testing ground

This was the first occasion since a new cooperation Agreement between the components of the Movement was approved by the Council of Delegates in Seville, Spain (see pp.18-19) that the “family” was sharing the same house and trying to live in harmony. All of us were acutely conscious of the fact that the spirit of the accord was being put to the test and our actions would be scrutinized by all.

Since the natural disaster had occurred in a country at war, as foreseen in the agreement, the ICRC assumed the role of lead agency. The Federation provided its traditional expertise in the area of natural disaster response. And as always the operation depended on the dedication and prowess of the National Society staff and volunteers, in this case those of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. They were the first on the scene after the earthquake and did perhaps the most gruelling job of all – accompanying donkey caravans on treacherous mountain treks to ensure that the aid reached the impossibly remote shattered villages.


A donkey’s burden

After talking with local contacts and Afghan Red Crescent staff, the ICRC opted for a mode of transport which had been used in the region for hundreds of years: the donkey. The word was spread to local traders, and delegates negotiated a deal for the daily donkey rate. It was not sure what the real response would be, but our fears were allayed when we arrived at the ICRC office the next day to find the field full of donkeys stoically waiting for their loads. The Federation delegate, John Hunter, assigned the task of warehouse manager, did probably a unique job in his Red Cross career by successfully organizing the loading of hundreds of donkeys – not an easy task – before they made their tortuous trek up the mountains.

It was to prove a remarkably effective way of getting relief to the earthquake victims. In the course of the operation over 200 donkeys transported tonnes of vitally needed tents, blankets and other assistance.

At the other end of the technological scale and following a thankful break in the weather, the ICRC flights, upon which the operation largely depended, resumed once again to drop supplies which were then picked up by trucks and taken back to Rostaq before being loaded onto helicopters and flown to the worst-hit villages.

In the end, over 250 tonnes of non-food aid was delivered to villages, ensuring that the worst-affected families were given shelter and blankets. The UN meanwhile provided the food and Médecins sans frontières (MSF) took care of the medical needs, whilst other NGOs also performed valuable tasks.

One of the most enduring images? It was the sight of the families who had been living in the wretched collective centre on the edge of the ICRC air-drop zone making the trek back to their village to rebuild their lives – wearing the bright scarves which we had used to guide the pilots to the right spot.

Amanda Williamson
Amanda Williamson is an ICRC press officer.

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