From a Nightmare to a Disaster (part two)

By Mozhgan Mahjoob

You can read part one here


The earthquake and aftershocks shook Herat and its districts from time to time all week. Sometimes they were strong, sometimes they were mild. The devastation was worst in the rural districts of Zindah Jan, Ghoryan, and other districts and villages. In those villages people stayed outside their houses; the only ones who survived had taken their sheep into the desert or had been outside their houses for whatever reason.

In Herat, I’m living in a tent with my mother, my dad, and my sisters. The buildings still are not safe. I keep first aid materials, medicine, clothes, and other necessary items with me in a bag inside the tent. On the third night all of our neighbors were in their tents outside, too. A black bird with white feathers, the cuckoo bird began calling cuckoo, from the roof our house, which scared all the neighbors. Many people here believe that whenever the cuckoo bird calls from a place the whole area around it would be ruined and become isolated. According to legend, that bird is an omen. I had never seen a cuckoo in the past, and I didn’t believe what the neighbors said. But my mother said that, in the past, anytime the cuckoo called people would smile and clap toward it, to appease its threat. So, she was worried too.

The neighbors told us to catch the bird and kill it, but we refused and told them that we wouldn’t kill a bird regardless of what happened, because it isn’t the fault of the bird. If its call announces the upcoming calamity we should be thankful, not trying to kill it. Killing an innocent bird will not stop the earthquake.

The cuckoo called at dusk, and by midnight, as I prayed that God would keep us safe, I felt sure there would be another earthquake that night. I couldn’t sleep. I kept checking my phone, reading the news, and waiting for the night to pass. Time moved slowly and that night was dark and long. At 5:00 am the Mosques started the morning prayer, Azaan, and exactly at 5:11 am a loud sound, like an explosion, boomed, and the earth under the tent started shaking. We all went outside our tents and shouted. The earthquake lasted longer and was stronger, louder, and scarier than the first one on the 7th of October. Everyone gathered outside the tents and prayed loudly until the shaking stopped, and when we came back to the tents it was 5:11 am. Then a strong aftershock hit, destroying many houses, and killing and injuring many, both inside the city and in all districts.

I heard rumors on social media that the origin of the earthquakes might be nuclear bombs, tested underground, and this makes me anxious. If this was true then the radiation would be deadly for everyone in Herat. Radioactivity could destroy the whole environment: humans, animals and nature. I told my family that we needed to leave Herat and move to another place, but they did not accept it; they told me if we left the city during a disaster the disaster would follow us to other places. We needed to stay in our city until the disaster ended. Considering the safety of people in other provinces I decided to stay too, and I respected their decision.

I told my dad I was worried hearing about the nuclear bomb explosions—that these earthquakes might be their result—but my father assured me that Afghanistan sits on an earthquake fault, and if the faults were not active during these years in the past it does not mean that an earthquake would never happen. According to him, when the deep-well- water came up muddy this was the sign of an earthquake coming. Recently the city’s deep-well water had become muddy, and in some cases it had even dried up. I told him about another theory that people told me: that gold miners in the Zindah Jan district tried to extract gold with explosives underground, and this caused the earthquakes from time to time. Neither of us was sure what to believe.

He told me that, in the past, Zindah Jan was called the Foshanj district, and that our ancestors lived there with many hardworking people, most of them farmers. This rural district had many villages then. With its famous river of Hariroad and the farms, it was a favorite sightseeing place for the city dwellers in Herat.” I asked him, “if it was the Foshanj district before, why do they call it Zindah Jan now?”

He explained, “we heard from our late grandparents, and the older people there, that a long time ago a strong earthquake hit the district of Foshanj, and it killed everyone, as if the ground had opened up and swallowed everything, killing all the humans and animals. In the whole area only one person survived, and he was so confused—looking everywhere he didn’t understand what had happened, and why everyone was gone. At that same time a caravan crossed the area and they saw this man, the only survivor, and they said, ‘look! there is a living person (which in Dari is ‘zindah Jjan’) and that’s why the name was changed from Foshanj to zindah jan.” After that the earthquakes did not happen for many years and, as time passed, the farmers, shepherds, and others went there to build their houses. Even so many years in the past some people claimed that they had found gold and jewels there by digging in the district of Zindah Jan which might be the remaining wealth from the people of Foshan District.

After hearing the story behind its name and the long history of past earthquakes in that place, I reached the conclusion that earthquakes happen from time to time, and that they are natural. I said so to my friends who were worried about its causes, the same as me.

By checking the Twitter forecast of Mr. Frank and being alert about the upcoming stronger earthquakes between 12, 14, and 16 of October, everyone was worried and scared because the threat of stronger earthquakes still to come was shown by the aftershocks happening several times every day and night. People started praying together in the Gazergah Desert. For three days, eighty- to ninety-thousand people took part in constant prayer. Everyone cried to God to stop this disaster. There were no strong earthquakes after that, except for some mild aftershocks.

In the afternoon of October 12th, a huge dust storm battered our tents until they were almost useless. We rushed to bring big stones to anchor the corners of the tents. The weather was so dark and full of dust and sand. Everyone was coughing. Our eyes could not see anywhere, and it seemed that our lungs were filled with dust. We covered our mouths and went inside what remained of the tents. Dust and sand thrown by the wind were hitting the tents, and the weather became very cold. Herat city has wind for 120 days during the year, but the dust storm that I saw that day was different. It had never happened in Herat before or since. The whole city and districts were caught in the storm. Outside the houses was the storm and inside the houses was the fear of the earthquake. We could neither move inside the houses nor stay outside under the tents. Kids were shouting and our hearts were shaking.

That night we had no dinner. It felt like the end of the world for us. We were all disappointed, and I received calls and messages from many friends who asked for forgiveness, just in case they would not be alive the next day. Some neighbors decided to stay in their houses. It was predicted that it would rain soon; but I told my family that I wouldn’t go home, despite what happens with the storm, rain, and the earthquakes. I would stay in the tent. After several hours that night, the dust storm slowed. The next morning the weather was cold and windy, and many people got the flu. People rushed to the drugstores, mostly to purchase sleeping pills while the mild aftershocks continued for two days, until Saturday morning.

On the weekend it started to rain and I had to bring my blanket back to the house. Most of our neighbors also went to their houses, because they thought the earthquakes were over,; but they weren’t. On Saturday, At 8:36 am, a stronger earthquake with a booming sound rose as I rushed toward the door. We opened it and as I hugged one of my nieces we escaped from the house again, and I saw a building in front of our house collapsing, its bricks thrown this way and that as people shouted and ran from it. This again reminded me my nightmare and seemed terribly familiar to me.

My little niece’s heart beat fast as we reached  the tent. This quake was stronger and louder than the earthquakes that had happened so far. We were under the tent when another stronger aftershock happened. Many houses in the city and the districts and villages were destroyed. Many people were injured or were killed.

Among those who were killed were the ones who went back to their houses, due to the cold winter and rain, but their houses fell down and killed them. My niece Sana pointed toward the building in front of our house and she still believed that it was shaking from the quake. She was so scared, she made the sound of an earthquake, although she could not speak. She believed that the earthquake was there inside of all the houses and that the building would forever throw its bricks away. Perhaps she was right. The earthquake does not inform anyone, and when it happens it kills and destroys everyone. Kids believe what they see, and she saw that the building’s bricks were thrown away onto the people and people were escaping under it, so she was terrified.

Everyone here is disturbed mentally, and no one was prepared for such a disaster, one that is not supposed to end soon and that exactly when we thought that it ended it began again. The horrifying moments keep returning, and in each moment we’re waiting and expecting yet another disaster to happen. Yet, when I pray and recite the Holy Quran, my heart and mind are calm—as if all of this is not real, as if the earthquakes never happened, and as if the earth does not shake under my feet or in front of my eyes. I have one wish: I wish that the disaster ends soon, because all the houses—even our house—are cracked. Pieces of the walls are thrown, and inside the house our rooms are all cracked and fragile, which is really shocking and a scary sign because when the walls crack, they might fall down. The recent forecast of Mr. Frank was only through October 16, and I hope that life gets back to normal for us soon.


You can read part three here.

18 October, 2023