Digging Out in Afghanistan’s Forgotten Village

On the third day of her journey, our correspondent visits a town buried in mud -- and trying to recover with no help from either the government or the Taliban.

Anna Badkhen
Anna Badkhen
Anna Badkhen

View photos of the flood aftermath here.

WUIMA UT — Have you heard of the flood that laid waste to the village of Wuima Ut? A day of heavy spring rain eased giant sheets of icy crust off the Hindu Kush. The snowmelt ran downhill and funneled into the canal that irrigates the fields and orchards of this small hamlet of a hundred or so sharecroppers and their families. Soon, the turbid water could no longer fit inside the narrow waterway. It pulsated and throbbed, like the heart of an enormous, adrenalized beast. Between 2:30 and 3 in the afternoon, it rose 15 feet and rushed through the grove of pomegranate trees behind Badalsho's house, surged along the concrete walls of his crowded compound, found the gate, and gushed inside.

View photos of the flood aftermath here.

WUIMA UT — Have you heard of the flood that laid waste to the village of Wuima Ut? A day of heavy spring rain eased giant sheets of icy crust off the Hindu Kush. The snowmelt ran downhill and funneled into the canal that irrigates the fields and orchards of this small hamlet of a hundred or so sharecroppers and their families. Soon, the turbid water could no longer fit inside the narrow waterway. It pulsated and throbbed, like the heart of an enormous, adrenalized beast. Between 2:30 and 3 in the afternoon, it rose 15 feet and rushed through the grove of pomegranate trees behind Badalsho’s house, surged along the concrete walls of his crowded compound, found the gate, and gushed inside.

“There were 10 of us trying to close that gate, 10 grown men,” said Badalsho. A lifetime of tending tomato fields has crumpled the skin on his neck and planted sand in the deep furrows behind his gray beard.

“Ten grown men could not stop that water from coming into my house.”

Two days before the flood Badalsho had sown his tomato seeds in a field upstream from the village: all gone now. Some of the seeds may now be buried in the half-foot of sludge the flood deposited on the floor of his living room, or in the knee-high coat of mud that rings the walls of his bedroom. Maybe Badalsho’s tomatoes will unexpectedly sprout from the kitchen walls of Mohammad Nasir, a pomegranate farmer who lives downstream and whose family of eight spent the first two nights after the flood sleeping on soggy mattresses piled over ankle-deep puddles left after the water receded.

Maybe a few tomatoes will grow in what is left of the house of Sayed Hamayun, an unemployed car mechanic with a shy smile. The flood licked away Hamayun’s house the way high tide licks away a sand castle on the beach. All that remains are three stumps of former walls and a heap of mud cascading into what once was the front porch. Twenty families — a fifth of the village — lost their homes in the flood. The rest are not sure their houses will survive. Their walls are made with clay and straw. Scrape them with your fingertip through the muck left by the floodwaters and they give way easily, like frosting. In a few weeks, the villagers said, they may wobble, then crack, then crumble down like cake.

 

To people who live here, the devastation is biblical. But who cares about sharecroppers living hand-to-mouth 30 miles east of Mazar-e-Sharif when there is a war on? The Afghan government offered them recovery assistance amounting to a one-time distribution of 190 loaves of bread. In a land where the Taliban is getting stronger by the day, the miniature catastrophe in Wuima Ut, and hundreds like it, go unnoticed by the news cycle. (The Taliban, which have established shadow governments and Islamic courts in most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, are not known to be involved in recovery efforts.)

In Mohammad Nasir’s waterlogged bedroom, men discussed their plan for digging out. Who will send their sons to clear the narrow unpaved streets, now glistening in the sun with 5 or 6 inches of smooth glop dredged up by the flood. Who will scrape the muck off the trunks of fruit trees to give them a chance to survive. When I asked if the government would send someone to help, the men laughed so hard they had to wipe tears from the sun-worn crinkles around their eyes.

“The government’s hungry, the government’s thirsty,” said one farmer, Kurbai Shah, after the laughter died down. “The government will just take the money and put it in their pockets.”

When was the last time the government offered any help to the people of Wuima Ut?

Kurbai Shah closed his eyes to think.

“Under Daoud.” Mohammed Daoud Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most successful dictators, was killed in the Saur revolution in 1978. 

 

The ebb and flow of Afghani politics has barely registered in Wuima Ut. Villagers remember the communist regime of President Mohammed Najibullah for the crops destroyed by Soviet aerial bombardment. They remember the Taliban for punishing the men who were not pious enough. The overthrow of the Taliban meant they no longer have to pray five times a day — nothing more. Their life has not become better, or worse. It remains as difficult as it has been for centuries.

Leaving Wuima Ut in an all-wheel drive that periodically stalled in the mud, I saw four villagers dredging the irrigation canal that had steered the flood to the village. Three men in their 30s, hip-deep in water, were trying to hold off the current by pushing against it with a large sheet of reinforced plywood. A much older man, perhaps their father, stood a few paces downstream, raking the bottom with a metal shovel and tossing rocks and sediment onto the shore. The men’s clothes were splattered with mud, like everything else in the village: the cows, the donkey carts, the children slipping about in the streets, the little girl carrying fresh cottage cheese on an aluminum tray balanced on her head. The only clean thing I saw was a white pigeon.

White pigeons are rare in Afghanistan, but in Balkh province they are a common sight: Ten thousand of them famously flock to Mazar-e-Sharif’s Blue Mosque, the reputed final resting place of Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The locals say the 15th-century site is so holy that should a gray pigeon join the flock, it will become completely white in 40 days.


<p> Anna Badkhen is the author, most recently, of The World Is a Carpet. She is working on Walking with Abel, a book about transience. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.