From a Nightmare to a Disaster (part one)

By Mozhgan Mahjoob
Mozhgan Mahjoob's stories

My sister held the back wall of our house as a grating sound rose from the walls and the ground. I rushed down the stairs and saw my family catching bricks that were thrown from the wall, one by one. Outside the house, people shouted and cried. I opened the door and saw our building swaying, its bricks thrown further and further. Then I woke up. My heart was racing, and it kept racing for half the night.

I turned on the light and checked everywhere, but all was well; nothing had happened. In the morning I told my sisters about the dream and asked my mother to give bread to the poor people, because charity or feeding the poor can protect us from  calamity. My mother agreed. She went to the bakery and my sisters assured me it was just a nightmare and I should forget about it.

A week later, on Saturday morning, October 7, I was preparing for an online class in French, while making plans for the week, when an explosive sound raised from under the ground, the ground erupted in shrieks and crashing. The walls inside my room rattled and tore, bottles of perfume fell from my cupboard, but they did not break. The floor jumped and it bucked, as if someone had thrown a bomb under our house, or some deeply buried machine was digging its way up and out of the Earth. It was 11:11 AM.

I thought maybe our neighbor was working on his house. I rushed to the stairs and down to the first floor, where my mother held my nieces and shouted, “It’s an earthquake…”  We hurried to the entry hall and, as we opened the door and went outside, it stopped. All our neighbors had gathered out of their houses. Everyone seemed to be scared and my nieces cried loudly. We thought that the earthquake was over, so we went back into the house after a while. Then came an aftershock, and paintings shook from the walls and the glasses in the kitchen started hitting each other.

We rushed back outside and again it stopped. And then twice more: this earthquake was different—it kept recurring from time to time. With the next sudden shake I threw myself out the door and fled. I couldn’t believe what I saw: our house swayed right and left as kids and people shouted and cried.

My mind was on my father, who was in his shop, and on my sisters and brother. Our neighbor pointed out an empty lot at the back of our house, and said to go there. “There are three buildings around this spot in the street, and it is not safe to stand here.” All these shouts and noises echoed in my ears. My hands, my heart, my head and the whole-of-my-body started shaking. I felt a sharp pain behind my eyes and felt dizzy and confused. Tears poured from my eyes, staining my cheeks, without my even realizing that I was weeping. I looked to the sky and said, “God please protect my family and my people. We have only this roof on our heads. Please stop this earthquake before it kills and destroys everything. God please save us from all the calamity of the earth and the sky. Only you can save us, and only you can show us mercy.” For a moment there was only silence. Yes, it was stopped. I looked at my little nieces, two and four, who were still shouting in fear and went to them but I didn’t have the power to walk inside the house again.

We stayed outside. It seemed the ground, the walls, the people, everything, was unstable. Some people went inside their houses thinking that the earthquake had stopped. The electricity was off and the phone network was down completely. No one could call. I tried to reach my dad but the call dropped. After several tries turning my phone off and on I reached my dad and my sisters, and they were unhurt. People were scared and rushing to leave the city. The subways were closed and the streets were so crowded that no vehicles could move in the city; again the phone network went down.

After several hours the network came on again. I received text messages from my close friends who asked about my safety and a Tweeted screenshot of Mr. Frank Hoogerbeets, who had forecasted the earthquake in Turkey. He said that the earthquake we experiencd, in Herat, Afghanistan, might have several aftershocks and people needed to be careful. It was then that I knew that after each earthquake there would be the possibility of another one, or even several more, which were called the aftershocks. Mr. Frank alerted the Afghan people about this danger.

The aftershocks continued from one day to another from time to time and it seemed that the ground was shaking under our feet. I saw photos and videos from the Zindah Jan and Ghoryan Districts, and several villages. Mostly farmers and poor people lived there in unsupported clay houses. The quakes were centered there. Poverty drove many men from those villages to move to Iran, for work and to support their families. Those who remained, mostly women and children, suffered this disaster.

Their villages were destroyed and turned to dust. A man cried over the remains of his ruined house that fourteen members of his family were under it, and he was all alone without any tools to pull them out.  A boy cried that, out of the whole family, only he was saved, and he did not want to live anymore. A young man cried that he came back from Iran and he saw that everywhere was destroyed. An old man cried that he lost several members of his family and a kid who was still alive among the dust, because of the protection of his dead mother, showed such photos that even the stones would have melted in pain if they had hearts. The pain and the grief of those poor people with empty hands, digging in the remains of the dust and clay in the hope of finding their family members alive, could bring tears to anyone’s eyes.

The shadow of the deadly earthquake and its fear threatened the whole city and villages of Herat, meanwhile people rushed to help those who got stuck under the houses in Zindah Jan. During the whole night they searched the rubble with their hands to save the people who were buried in it. It was the most horrible night for everyone in Herat. When I saw the helicopters flying out of the city I thought of those people. My father, sisters, and brother came back home. My brother said he could predict the aftershocks from his cat. Before each aftershock the cat ran off; it happened several times, so he knew that whenever his cat escaped an aftershock was on its way.

Next day again some earthquakes came. One of them was really strong and it shook the whole city. I knew that it wouldn’t end soon. Whenever a loud explosion was heard we knew that it was an earthquake since before shaking the explosion sound was heard and after that the building was shaking and we knew that by hearing it we should escape to the outside open spaces. Our neighbors collected donations and clothes to help the survivors of the deadly earthquake of Zindah Jan and its villages.

Thousands of people, mostly kids and women, were killed. Thousands more were underneath rubble, injured, dying or dead. They could not be found. The number of people who died must have been much higher than what the news channels announced. Donations came. Several businessmen, including the director of Azizi Bank Mr. Mirwais Azizi, sent financial support to relieve the suffering in Zindah Jan, Ghoryan, and the villages. Even those who had nothing helped from different corners of Herat and Afghanistan, proving that still there is humanity and unity in people’s hearts and blood. Everyone helped each other, even with blood donations, during the disaster.

The aftershocks forecast by Mr.Frank continued and people rushed to buy tents and stay outdoors, away from the buildings. The price of tents rapidly increased and people had to stand in line for several hours to buy one. All the parks and the empty spaces outside the houses were covered with tents. Mr. Frank alerted the people again that they should be careful, because a stronger earthquake and more aftershocks were on the way. We did not feel safe in our house and put our tent in the desert outside our house. The whole day and night, we have to stay under the tents far from the buildings. The tents are too hot during the day and too cold during the night. The aftershocks happened several times after Saturday. These earthquakes and aftershocks raised the question among the people if these deadly events that afflict us are natural, or are they caused by the activities of other nations near to Afghanistan? No one knows about it, and many different theories are raised by different people on social media.

The word “disaster” cannot encompass our condition right now; it is even worse than a disaster. It is worse than my nightmare, worse than what we see in horror movies. All I can say is that it is deadly, it is horrible, and it is scary. Thousands of lives end in a single second. Most of those killed in Zindah Jan district were near doors they could not open to escape through, because the houses fell on them and they died.

People’s shouts, grief, and sighs reach the sky but still it does not end the rage of nature. I feel confused. I can’t sleep through the night and I can’t stay calm during the day. In the next earthquake, would I be saved? Even if I was saved, will I ever be normal again? The whole day it feels like the ground is shaking and the walls are shaking. When I hear a loud sound, I think that it’s happening again. My heart races and my hands shake. They say there will be stronger earthquakes than before, in the next few days, and all I know is that anything can happen, any time.


Please read part two by clicking here.

14 October, 2023