“I felt my sister’s hand beside me”: Trapped under her collapsed home for five hours after the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan, young Gulaba emerged to even more devastation

Veronica Houser

GAYAN, PAKTIKA PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN – Gulaba was jolted awake to the weight of her whole house on her little body. Just a few hours previous, she had slept peacefully, curled up next to her 10-year-old sister, Mah Gul.

But that night, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook her village in Gayan District, flattening whole neighbourhoods, eradicating livelihoods that depended on destroyed shops and businesses.

For five hours, Gulaba was trapped under stones, wood beams, bricks and mud with her brothers, sisters and parents. It was more trauma than any 7-year-old should bear.

"I thought I was dreaming that I was shaking,” she recalls. “But I woke up to a terrible sound of the roof collapsing. I felt that I was in a very tight place and I could not move."

Then she whispers, “I was really afraid.”

Gulaba's father, Mati Khan, looks haunted. He remembers feeling powerless, helpless, when the earthquake ravaged his community and did nothing but steal from him.

“When the earthquake hit, it was about 1:00 in the morning and we were asleep,” he recounts. “I felt a tremor and I wanted to get up. But the roof collapsed on me and my family.”

Gulaba trembles. Her voice quavers. She hugs her body, as though trying to disappear inside herself.

After five hours, neighbours managed to pull Gulaba and her family out from under the rubble.

"I was pulled out from under the rafters, and I saw a white blanket thrown over my sister. I was scared and shaking, and my father hugged me.”

Gulaba’s big, warm family of 12 had become 11. Her older sister, 10-year-old Mah Gul, died in the collapse.

Now Gulaba lives under a tent with her father, mother, and eight surviving brothers and sisters. Their home is gone, along with most of their possessions.

“Everything we own was erased,” says Mati Khan. “Even our cows and sheep died. We are always afraid the earthquake will happen again.”

A weighted aura of loss hangs over the family. Gulaba, terrified and barely understanding what had happened, developed a high fever after the earthquake. The only available healthcare in the district is through mobile clinics, which UNICEF supports with medical supplies, tents where the sick and injured can seek treatment, and trained professionals.

UNICEF also supports four child-friendly spaces in the earthquake-affected districts, where children can find playthings, friends to seek comfort, trained counsellors and case workers to help them work through their trauma.

And Gulaba's trauma is evident. When she tries to speak about the earthquake, she draws herself in closer, looks away. She struggles to respond with more than a word.

"I miss my sister," she says softly. "And I am very scared."

In Paktika Province, UNICEF mobile health and nutrition teams are supported by funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and the Government of Sweden.

Child-friendly spaces in Paktika are supported by the Global Humanitarian Thematic Fund.