ABI BARIK, Afghanistan — Afghan rescuers and hundreds of volunteers armed with shovels and little more than their bare hands dug through earth and mud Saturday looking for survivors or bodies of loved ones killed by a massive landslide in the remote northeast.
Figures on the number of people killed and missing in the disaster Friday varied from 255 to 2,700 as officials tried to gather precise information. Fears of a new landslide complicated rescue efforts, and with homes and residents buried under meters (yards) of mud, officials said the earth from the landslide likely would be their final resting place.
“That will be their cemetery,” said Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of the country’s two vice presidents, who visited the scene Saturday. “It is not possible to bring out any bodies.”
Though figures on the death toll varied, residents knew the toll the tragedy had taken on their own families.
From atop a muddy hill, Begam Nesar pointed to the torrent of earth below that had wiped out much of her village. “Thirteen of my family members are under the mud,” she said, including her mother, father, brothers, sisters and children. She said she had been visiting relatives at a nearby village when the disaster struck.
The United Nations said Friday at least 350 people died, and the provincial governor said as many as 2,000 people were feared missing. On Saturday, the International Organization of Migration said information they gathered from provincial figures and local community leaders indicated that 2,700 people were dead or missing.
Part of the confusion lay in the fact that no one knew how many people were home when the landslide struck. At least 255 people were confirmed dead, Khalili said. Most of those were people who had rushed to the scene to help after a previous, smaller landslide. When a bigger landslide then struck the area, those people along with roughly 300 homes were wiped out. But since no one knows how many people were in those 300 homes, it remains difficult to account for the dead, Khalili said.
Mohammad Aslam Seyas, deputy director of the Natural Disaster Management Authority, said fears of new landslides had slowed the operation.
“Search and rescue operations are going on very slowly,” Seyas said.
The ground on a hill overlooking the village was soaked from recent heavy rainfalls that officials believe triggered the slide. About 1 kilometer (more than half a mile) away, government and aid groups had set up tents to care for people displaced by the disaster.
Sunatullah, a local farmer, was working outside when he felt the earth start to move. He said he ran toward his house, grabbed his wife and children and then ran to the top of a nearby hill. Minutes later, he said, part of the hill collapsed.
“The houses were just covered in mud,” he said, adding that he had lost 10 members of his extended family, his house and his livestock.
Authorities distributed food and water to people displaced by the landslides, said Abdullah Homayun Dehqan, the head of Badakhshan province’s National Disaster Department.
A memorial ceremony is planned for later Saturday, United Nations spokesman Ari Gaitanis said.
Rescuers have struggled to reach the remote area, where there is little development or infrastructure. The province borders Tajikistan to the north and China and Pakistan to the east.
“Badakhshan is a remote, mountainous region of Afghanistan, which has seen many natural disasters,” said the head of the IOM’s Afghanistan office, Richard Danziger. “But the scale of this landslide is absolutely devastating, with an entire village practically wiped away. Hundreds of families have lost everything.”
In addition to the wars and fighting that have plagued Afghanistan for roughly three decades, the country has been subject to repeated natural disasters including landslides and avalanches. A landslide in 2012 killed 71 people. Authorities were not able to recover the vast majority of bodies and ended up declaring the site a massive grave.