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Mudslide victims left out in the cold

Khushqadam Usmani
Despite the millions allocated for their new homes, the victims of a May mudslide in Badakhshan province still lack a proper roof over their heads as winter approaches.
9.09.2014  |  Badakhshan

The approaching cold weather has cracked the bare feet of Khayal Baygum’s children. The wounds have gotten larger and bleed occasionally. Despite the government aid allegedly channeled to Khayal Mah’s family since a May mudslide disaster destroyed their village home in northern Badakhshan province, they continue to play in the dirt with other children from neighboring tents, set up as temporary abodes to house mudslide survivors three months ago. Although charities have provided them with aid packages containing footwear, Khayal Bagum said that her children are no longer used to wearing shoes.

A mudslide destroyed part of the following severe rains in May, killing at least 350 people. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and 4,000 cattle were also buried under the mud. The presidential palace has since sent aid, but most of the families displaced by the disaster continue to live in crowded temporary tents with no access to running water, heating and electricity. As the cold season approaches in this mountainous region, the families worry for their future survival.

Khayal Bagum and her children are not the only people in Aab-e-Bareek who are waiting for shelters. In total, some 450 people have yet to receive new housing promised by the Afghan government.

Another victim of the disaster in Aab-e-Bareek Village is Mowlowi Khaled, the chairman of the village council. “Our life is very tough under this tent,” he says. “Just think about living with eighteen people under one roof.”

Aab-e-Bareek is 25 kilometers from Faizabad city, the capital of Badakhshan province. Shortly after the May 2 disaster, a long list of government luminaries and charity organizations travelled to the site to offer their condolences and promise help. Aside from President Hamid Karzai, the visitors included the vice-presidents of Afghanistan, the Parliament speaker, the Senate chairman, Parliament representatives of Badakhshan province as well as several charity organizations.

In his meeting with the people of Aab-e-Bareek village, President Karzai offered his deep condolences and assigned Wais Barmak, Minister of Rural Development of Afghanistan, to oversee reconstruction efforts and find new housing for displaced residents.

Efforts to build new homes for the mudslide survivors began soon after, but soon veered off-course due to local complaints regarding a lack of transparency in aid management. Barmak left Badakhshan after only a week of overseeing the efforts, reassigning the project oversight to the provincial government after creating four committees: “The Committee to identify those in need, the committee to distribute both monetary and nonmonetary aid, the committee to collect money and the committee for building new residences,” said Sayeed Abdullah Homayoon Shah Dehqan.

Dehqan is head of Badakhshan’s department for Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, a government-independent directorate headquartered in Kabul that is now responsible for the project. Though he is concerned regarding the project’s future feasibility under government oversight, he denied allegations of mismanagement. “Each committee had six members and they quickly began their work,” he said.

But Sayeed Omar Baher, a civil society activist in Badakhshan province, says Barmak’s abrupt departure to Kabul left the reconstruction project vulnerable to corruption. Baher is concerned that aid will not be distributed will not be distributed as needed. “The men in power will exploit the situation for their advantage,” he said.

Meanwhile, the project remains prone to abrupt strategic changes. Wais Barmak, minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development called Badakhshan’s governor Shah Wali Adeeb Sept. 7 and told him that the new houses/shelters for the landslide survivors should be constructed of mud bricks, according to Dr. Gul Mohammad Baidar, deputy governor of Badakhshan. 

Baidar said that the government had initially decided to build 150 new shelters/houses at a cost of $1.2 million for Aab-e-Bareek residents. The money was already allotted for the project. 

However, during his phone conversation, Barmak told Adeeb that the shelters in Badakhshan should not be different from other such projects in the country and therefore the government would only pay $3000 to each family to build their houses. 

Baidar said that based on government’s initial decision, each house was expected to cost $12,000 and some 16 constructions companies received contracts to start the construction later this month. Aside from regional governments and foreign aid organizations, much of this funding has come from Afghans themselves, who donated money to local charities in a nationwide effort to help the mudslide victims.

Residents and provincial officials lay the foundations of a new settlement near Aab-e-Bareek in a Sept. 5 ceremony. Photos: Khushqadam Usmani

Dehqan said that people would not be able to complete the work on their mud-brick houses before the weather gets cold. He warned that there will be another disaster if the people were to spend the upcoming winter in their current tents. He said there are all indications that the people will spend the winter in their tents. 

Winter is coming

Earlier this month, provincial and state government officials laid the foundation to Independence Town, a new settlement some 1.5 kilometers from Aab-e-Bareek, after four months of waiting. According to Dehqan, all the displaced residents have received a coupon book and identification card that gives them access to aid.

The town’s original blueprint has shrunk from 500 to 300 acres. “Every family would receive five hundred square meters of land. There will be schools, clinics and roads,” said Gul Mohammad Baydar, the deputy governor of Badakhshan province. “It is enough for them.”

“The construction of Independence Town had to go through the approval process of the Cabinet and it took time. For this reason, there was a delay,” he added.

Minister Barmak told Afghanistan Today in a telephone interview that the Badakhshan governor began the construction of the shelters without prior approval from Kabul. 

“Without my approval, the governor began the construction of shelter in Ab-e-Bareek village and I was not aware of it. That is why I stopped their work,” Barmak told AT. 

“Besides the construction cost of each shelter at 12,000 dollars is very high and Afghan government is not able to pay for such high cost.” 

The minister declined to confirm that the government has already allotted 1.2 million dollars for the construction of 150 shelters, something that the Badakhshan authorities repeatedly claimed in the past months. 

The project was inaugurated several days ago, but little construction has happened since, raising the displaced residents’ concerns for their future wellbeing.  “When the town was inaugurated, we were so happy, knowing we will finally have our own homes. Unfortunately, not much has happened since,” said Mowlowi Khaled. It will not be possible to build anything in a month, with the freezing weather making construction impossible, he added.

“The town has to be built this winter. If not, all these children will die,” said Abdul Baqi Samandar, a Kabul based civil society activist who has been working with Aab-e-Bareek children since the disaster. Addressing officials, he said, “These people have no conscience. They used helping victims as pretext for their [election] campaigns. Now, the weather is getting cold and nobody is helping them.”