The fear from a week of unrelenting earthquakes is palpable throughout the northwestern city of Herat in Afghanistan. Makeshift tents made of sticks and sheets have popped up across public parks, alleyways and grassy medians of main roads, the families within them too afraid to sleep in their homes.
Men pray in the street instead of at mosques, pleading with God to stop the destruction. Office buildings are empty; the once-crowded money exchange that spanned four floors is closed. The only place in the city that is bustling is the airport, where those who can afford it have filled every plane heading out.
In just five days, three major earthquakes rocked this slice of Afghanistan close to Iran, killing nearly 1,300 people and injuring around 1,700 more, according to the United Nations. A handful of villages outside the city have been completely destroyed, in the deadliest natural disaster to hit the country in decades.
Herat City, the capital of the province, was spared the worst of the destruction. Apartment complexes, office buildings and some of the city’s ancient ruins were damaged but not razed like the fragile mud-brick homes in the desert villages outside the urban center.
But the 6.3-magnitude quakes — two on Saturday and another early Wednesday morning — and their aftershocks have put residents already reeling from the Taliban takeover two years ago and subsequent economic collapse on edge.
Now, Herat City, once a center of medieval Islamic culture, home to poets and scholars, has transformed into a city of tents. Residents are racked with questions they fear the answers to: Will the quakes ever end? Will their family survive? Is this a punishment from God?
“I’ve been scared; I was thinking I might lose my life,” said Rustam Yaqoobi, 45, standing outside a mosquito-net-turned-shelter in an empty, dusty lot on the outskirts of the city. “I can’t even think about the future, what will come. Only God knows.”
In the yard of the city’s Great Mosque, a centuries-old Islamic complex lavishly adorned with bright blue tiles, thousands of people have set up makeshift shelters and slept there for nearly a week.
For Esmatullah Khaliqi, 25, and dozens of his relatives, including his 1-year-old daughter, their home since Saturday has been four sheets connected to wooden poles dug into the hard earth. There are neither toilets in the tent camp nor wells to collect water, and his family must spend the little savings they have to buy food from a nearby market and cook it on a gas burner outside their tent.
On Wednesday, after the third major quake, a businessman came and distributed water and baked goods, nearly causing a stampede. His was the only aid that had arrived, Mr. Khaliqi said. Still, most families here have no choice but to stay until they feel it is safe to return home.
“We’re afraid for our families, we’re afraid for our children,” Mr. Khaliqi said. “I can’t even go to our house to get tea or food because I’m scared to go inside.”
For many, the earthquakes have amplified already troubling times. Residents in Herat, once a liberal bastion of Afghanistan, have been particularly devastated as the Taliban have imposed their ultraconservative vision for the country over the past two years.
Herat University, one of the country’s largest colleges, was emptied of its thousands of female students because of government restrictions on education for women and girls. So-called vice and virtue police officers were stationed on the streets to enforce dress codes requiring women to be completely covered and edicts restricting how far they could travel without a male relative.
After the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Western-backed government led to an economic crash, neighboring Iran also cracked down on the many men in Herat who illegally migrate there for work, as tensions between the Taliban and Iranian authorities flared.
“Yes, there is security now, but there are no jobs — and when there are no jobs, your life is hell,” said Mohammad Mujib, 45, sitting with his family in their makeshift home in Bagh-e-Millat Park, a hillside stretch of trees and gardens on the outskirts of the city. As Mr. Mujib spoke, his wife, Zainab, gently stirred a pot of oil on top of a gas canister preparing fried potatoes for dinner.
Mr. Mujib said he used to make around $600 a month as a safety manager on major infrastructure projects funded by organizations like USAID. With those projects now evaporated, he works as a rickshaw driver scraping together around 150 Afghanis — about $2 — a day.
“I used to give my kids everything they wanted, brought them food — now look at my son,” he said, pointing to 4-year-old Mashal, whose arms were rail-thin.
Then there’s his daughter, 14-year-old Maryam. She finished the sixth grade last year but has been unable to return to classes because of the Taliban’s restrictions. She barely leaves home, afraid of being yelled at or detained by the police for not being sufficiently covered up.
“When I used to ask her to help with something in the house, she always said, ‘Sure, Dad, of course.’ Now when I’m asking her she says, ‘Do it yourself, I am not going to help, I’m not in the mood,’” he said. “I can tell that she is so depressed.”
Around their encampment, hundreds of others had strung bright purple and pink sheets between trees to create makeshift shelters. Plastic trays were stacked with bowls and silverware from their homes, and there were large thermoses for tea. A 23-year-old pushed a metal cart through the park’s paved corridors hawking food to the new residents: “Sour chickpeas!” he yelled. “Hot and spicy!”
As in many of the new encampments, few here had received any help from nongovernmental organizations — a sign, they said, of how aid money has dried up as the world’s attention has shifted away from Afghanistan over the past year.
The Taliban’s isolation on the world stage — no country has officially recognized its government — has also complicated relief efforts. While assistance from around the world poured into countries like Turkey and Morocco that also experienced devastating earthquakes this year, there has been no similar support for Afghanistan. The aid that has arrived came mostly from neighboring countries and the Persian Gulf, said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban administration.
The absence of support has made many in Herat feel even more forgotten, both by the West, which shaped daily life for 20 years before U.S. troops left in 2021, and their new government, which they feel was ill equipped to handle such a disaster.
“Up to now, we haven’t seen any help from the government. They should be doing more; where are they?” said Aliya Sultani, 26, standing outside her temporary shelter in the park.
In Jabrail, a township on the western edge of the city, residents awoke Thursday morning in their tents, which were scattered across empty parking lots and tucked into alleyways barricaded by rickshaws. Despite the crisp morning air, many felt lucky; there was no earthquake the night before.
Hundreds made their way to an empty stretch of road where the local imams had gathered to pray for those who had been killed and plead with God to stop the earth from trembling.
After men and women laid their prayer mats or scarves on the concrete road, an imam, Mullah Muhammad Khatimi, offered a prayer. As he sang into the microphone, his voice began to tremble. Then he burst into tears.