Afghanistan Landslides: With Husbands and Parents Lost, Female Survivors Face Particular Challenges

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By Azima Roya,Provincial Program Coordinator for Concern Worldwide in Badakhshan, Afghanistan

Jamila, 13, used to be a chatterbox. That changed two weeks ago when a mudslide claimed the lives of both of her parents and left her empty-handed and responsible for four siblings. Concern Worldwide has been working with Jamila and other survivors since the deadly landslide. Today, her 12-year-old sister ran, elated, to share the news with our team: Jamila spoke and smiled for the first time since May 2nd. The Jamila her family knew is returning, albeit slowly.

When the mountainside came crashing down on the village of Aab Bareek in northeastern Afghanistan on May 2nd, it destroyed everything in its wake and, along with it, Jamila’s childhood. Only recently a teenager, Jamila is now the head of her family, after the landslide killed both her mother and father. She is responsible for providing for her brothers and sisters—aged 12 years to nine months—in a country where the challenges of raising a family as a single woman, let alone at Jamila’s tender age, are next to impossible.

The landslide left Jamila and her brothers and sisters with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The family’s ten sheep, two cows, plough, land, and home were all swallowed by the earth, along with her parents. Her youngest sibling, Ayoub, nine months, constantly cries for their mother to feed him, and Jamila cradles him and feeds him biscuits and powdered milk, their only option.

Two weeks after one of the deadliest landslides in Afghanistan’s history, enormous needs remain for the families affected. Part of the village has become a swamp as debris has blocked the drainage system. A small lake is forming, eroding mud homes that survived, and sparking panic among families as it is threatening to inundate the nearby burial site, something that would be seen as disrespectful to the dead.

Outsiders, hopeful of getting some of the aid being delivered to the affected families, are still lingering in Aab Bareek, though distributions have slowed. In the past two weeks, making sure aid reached the most vulnerable families was particularly difficult, especially for female-headed households.

“I don’t have anyone to go to the distribution place and get the support,” says Hawa Gul, who lost her husband and two sons in the landslide and now lives with her four surviving children. “I have parents, but they are disabled. I have two brothers, but they have their own families to take care of. They are poor and can’t support my family.”

Concern Worldwide was the first organization to identify genuinely affected families like Hawa’s and provide emergency shelters. Now, the 51 families living at the site have emergency latrines and bathing facilities as well as safe drinking water and waste management. Concern also created mechanisms to ensure that women who trust others to collect aid on their behalf actually receive what is allocated to them.

While we will continue to support families at the temporary camp, we are now shifting our focus to how best to support the most affected families over the coming months so that they can slowly recover and begin to rebuild their lives. UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for refugees, the government, and non-governmental organizations, including Concern Worldwide, are looking at where to establish a camp with transitional shelter.

“I don’t know how I can take care of [my children],” says Hawa. “I don’t have any land, an orchard, an animal, or any other livelihood option to run my life. I have no answers for my son, Mohammad Ashoor, who keeps crying and asking about his father… I appeal that the government provide me a permanent shelter and some livelihood sources so I can take care of my children.”

Education also has to be planned for, as the landslide damaged the nearest school to Aab Bareek. Now, students have to walk more than an hour to reach another school in the area. Child-friendly spaces are currently in place, but efforts are underway to create a temporary school and provide stationery and supplies to students.

It is because of that safe space for children to play and laugh together that Jamila, even with the weight of an entire family on her young shoulders, was able to smile and interact once again with her siblings and other children. But formal education will likely remain a luxury for her and other children like her as lost parents, homes, and livelihoods will increase their responsibilities at home.

“What should I do with my brothers and sisters?” Jamila asks. “How do I look after them? I am the eldest one in my family now.”