Noor Ahmad didn’t know where else to look. For days after a powerful earthquake leveled his village in Afghanistan, he scoured the district for his family. He dug under the rubble that was once their home. He combed through the trauma rooms in the regional hospital. He searched every body bag at the morgue, twice.
He found his wife and his five young daughters — all crushed to death. But his 5-year-old son, Sardar, was nowhere to be found. Now, lying by a makeshift tent outside what was once his home, Mr. Ahmad, 40, was torn between the incomprehensible pain of losing his family and the tiny spark of hope that somewhere, somehow, his son might still be alive.
“I am just begging with God,” he said.
Sardar is one of hundreds of people who are still missing more than a week after the first in a series of devastating earthquakes rocked northwestern Afghanistan. Families desperate for answers have been left in an agonizing limbo, yearning to find a way forward.
The temblors — the deadliest in Afghanistan in decades — killed roughly 1,300 people and injured 1,700 more, most of whom lived in only a few villages tucked in a stretch of desert along the Iran border. What were once clusters of mud-brick homes nestled between hillsides have been transformed into heaps of dust, makeshift tents and freshly dug graves.
Like Mr. Ahmad, many men in these villages had been in Iran, working as day laborers, when the quakes struck. Rushing back home, they found their families and neighbors scattered. Some remained in the area to dig through the rubble, while the injured were rushed to hospitals and clinics. Others were seeking refuge in relatives’ homes nearby.
It took days for many of the men to be reunited with their families. But more than a week since the first quake, Mr. Ahmad and scores of others were still desperately searching. Here there are no fingerprints and DNA tests to help families find their missing loved ones. Instead, they are largely on their own.
For many, the inability to answer a question so basic as whether their loved ones were alive or dead has only amplified the sense of powerlessness they felt when the earth shook violently beneath them.
“It’s worse for those people than if they knew their relatives are dead,” said Freshta Yaqoobi, managing director of the Organization for Sustainable Aid in Afghanistan, an aid group helping families affected by the quakes. “If you don’t know the fate of your loved ones it feels like you’re dying every second, you have a wound that can’t heal.”
Mr. Ahmad has spent his entire life in Seya Aab village. He went to primary school nearby and then started going to Iran for work when he was 16, or as he put it, “Before I even had a beard.” He joined dozens of men from the village for two or three months at a time, collecting and then selling scrap metal on the outskirts of Tehran, he said. He earned around $200 a month.
When he was 18, he married his wife, Fatima, whom he had known since childhood. She was his rock, able to soothe Mr. Ahmad when he was stressed about money or aching with the pain from an old injury from a car crash.
“Whenever I was not feeling relaxed, she would come up and massage my shoulders,” he said. “In the past 22 years, she never complained. Not once.”
He hated leaving her and their children, but there was no work in the village or the surrounding area. Going to Iran allowed him to ensure they had just enough to eat and to go to the hospital if necessary, he said.
Every time he returned home he was met with sheer joy. Farahnaz and Shukria, his two most rambunctious daughters, jumped all over him, smothering him in kisses. His 65-year-old mother always circled him three times, inspecting his lean frame to make sure he had not lost any weight.
“I would say, ‘You’re my mother, I should be the one checking on you,’” Mr. Ahmad said.
It was a tiring but stable life. Then just over a week ago, on the outskirts of Tehran, he received a call from another man from Seya Aab who told him a major earthquake had hit the village. He rushed to find a car to take him back across the border to Afghanistan. He called Fatima dozens of times. She did not pick up.
Mr. Ahmad arrived at the village in the late afternoon the next day, as the sun hung low over the hilltops. The village was no more.
He started frantically digging near where his home had stood. He called his neighbors to get an excavator to help him. He asked everyone: Where was Fatima? Where were his children? He got only blank stares in response. After hours of digging, he thought perhaps they had been rescued and set off for the nearest hospital, in Herat City.
There he went room to room, checking the ICU, the children’s ward and the maternity wing. Then, with a pit deep in his stomach, he went to the morgue.
And there he found Farahnaz, 14. Her face was pristine, almost as if she were sleeping, but the life had left her auburn eyes — the ones he always thought looked like his own.
“I started kissing her. I thought, thank God, at least she didn’t suffer,” Mr. Ahmad said.
Next, he found 6-year-old Shukria. Then 12-year-old Shahnaz. He didn’t recognize her battered face until his cousin pointed out her two front teeth, which hung longer than the rest.
After Shahnaz, came Zhina, 10. His wife. His mother. And his youngest, 9-month-old Amina, her life so short he had barely gotten to know her.
The grief was more than overwhelming. Standing in that morgue, it felt as if his world had ended.
Then he remembered: Sardar, his son. The skinny 5-year-old boy who was always doted on by his older sisters.
Mr. Ahmad inspected the bodies again. He ran back through the hospital. He asked his surviving neighbors to dig further into the ground where his home stood and check nearby clinics. His mind turned to questions that now consume him.
Had Sardar somehow survived? Was he sitting under the fluorescent white lights of a different hospital, wondering where his father was? Had someone taken his body mistakenly, thinking it was their own young boy, and buried him in another village somewhere? Or had he, unclaimed by anyone, been thrown into a mass grave?
Nearly a week since he first visited the morgue, Mr. Ahmad is still searching for answers. Until he finds Sardar, he said, he will be stuck in this state of suspension, as if caught himself between the living and the dead.
“I don’t know if my son is alive or dead,” he said. “I don’t know my future. I don’t know anything at all.”