• The Observer

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One minute there was a hill behind his picturesque village, and the next Ataullah watched helplessly as tons of mud split away and tumbled down toward the home where his children were playing and his wife was preparing lunch.

He never saw them again, nor his parents, seven of the hundreds killed in a mudslide that obliterated half of the village of Aab Barik in Afghanistan’s remote north on Friday.

It was the worst natural disaster in the war-torn country in nearly two decades, killing more people than all the flooding, earthquakes, avalanches and other catastrophes of last year put together.

“The mud was jumping down the mountain — it was terrifying. And when I rushed back and saw my house was entirely gone, I couldn’t bear to go close,” he said. Ataullah, who is 25 and like many Afghans uses only one name, had forced himself to return the next morning. Red-eyed with grief he set to work on deep mud with a simple shovel, like everyone else searching for their dead in an impoverished area an hour’s drive from the nearest road.

He got an hour’s help from a mini-excavator sent by the government but it unearthed only beams and blankets — no trace of any people swept away in the sudden cataclysm.

“The mud came down like a knife,” said Abdul Khalleeq, who watched in horror from his home further up the hill as more than two dozen of his relatives were buried alive. “It was so fast that people down there didn’t have a chance.”

The torrent hit about 20 minutes after a much smaller first landslide, so in addition to people in homes and mosques, it swept away dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who had rushed to help salvage homes and rescue people trapped.

The bigger collapse affected almost half of the steep hill facing the village. Loosened by days of torrential rain, a huge section dozens of meters wide broke away, cutting a gaping brown cliff into the side of the rolling green landscape and sending tons of earth and stone crashing down on unsuspecting people below.

Among those wiped out were an entire wedding party, with bride, groom, both sets of parents and all their relatives and friends lost under the new gash of soil. None of their bodies have been found.

Aab Barik used to be a beautiful cluster of several hundred adobe homes along a riverbank, with donkeys carrying people and goods up and down narrow mud lanes, and three mosques. Now its lower end is a lunar surface of mud still spongy with extra air it picked up on its tumbled down the mountain.

The government and aid agencies have rushed food, water and tents to the site, but there was no attempt at rescue. The weight and sheer amount of the mud meant the landslide killed everyone it trapped almost instantly; just a handful of people caught by the edge of its fury managed to keep their heads and upper bodies free and are being treated in hospitals nearby.

The aid on offer is basic, however, and limited to the worst-affected. Many villagers said they felt abandoned despite a flying visit by a vice president and half a dozen senior ministers to investigate the scale of the disaster. Dirty and exhausted refugees from the landslide filed up the rolling hill leading out of town looking for help, or heading up to tents on the hillside, terrified of further deaths.

“The village is empty because people think the hill could collapse again at any moment,” said Rahim, 40, who was hunting for several family members.

The torrent of mud blocked streams that flow into the valley and vast cracks have now formed across the rest of the hill, above the site of the collapse, threatening another disaster.

“Our house is just at the edge of the mudslide. We escaped with our lives but we daren’t go back,” said Babai, carrying her 2-year-old daughter, Habiba, after a futile search for a tent. “I think we are going to have to sleep on the mountainside,” added her son, Murtaza. “We have nowhere to go.”

Villagers’ estimates of the lives lost varied wildly from several hundred to more than 2,000, a figure given by the provincial governor soon after the disaster. But all agree the accident has devastated their community.

“Since this happened I haven’t eaten or drunk anything — I just can’t swallow,” said Abdul Waheed, 28, who lost several uncles and cousins.

One woman in a headscarf printed with cheerful red and orange flowers wandered through the village chanting to herself and leading a small girl by the hand. She had been driven at least temporarily mad by the loss of all her sons, a neighbor said.

Most villagers agreed that 200 or 300 homes had been buried but none could say exactly who was home and who was out — herding cows, visiting a nearby town or simply having tea with friends — and who had come down early from the higher part of town for the wedding, or to prepare for Friday prayers. People from nearby villages joined locals at impromptu ceremonies mourning everyone entombed.

“I am not sure exactly how many died,” Khaleq said of his relatives. “It’s too painful to think about them one by one.”

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