By Wahidullah Amani

KABUL, Afghanistan, February 14, 2005 (ENS) - Kabul is digging out from its biggest snowstorms in over a decade. While residents hope the snowfall may help ease the crippling seven-year drought, the severe winter weather has been responsible for scores of deaths and injuries in the capital and blamed for the crash of a passenger aircraft travelling from Herat to Kabul on February 3, killing all 104 people on board.

Over a foot of snow fell on the city during the first week of February, overwhelming municipal services.

It is the most severe winter weather in Afghanistan in over 15 years, according to Abdul Qadir Qadir, head of meteorology at the Ministry of Aviation and Tourism. Temperatures plunged to minus 17 Celsius (one degree Fahrenheit), resulting in at least five recorded deaths from hypothermia in Kabul's under-equipped refugee camps.

Another 18 people were reported dead in Zabul when their vehicles were trapped in the heavy snow on the Kabul-Kandahar highway.

The cold and icy weather is also responsible for a sharp rise in disease and injury, according to city medical workers.

Najibullah, a doctor at the orthopaedics department of Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, said that number of leg and hand fractures has gone up by 30 percent since the onset of severe weather in January.

Respiratory disease is also rampant. Hashmatullah, a doctor in Ibn Sina Hospital in Kabul, said that the number of patients has increased by 50 percent in the past month.


Walking to the clinic through the snow (Photo credit unknown)
Mohammed Hamid Nazim, a doctor in a pediatric hospital in Kabul, confirmed that the number of respiratory cases had increased sharply. He said children are particularly susceptible, "We have to have two children to a bed. The number of patients is simply too great."

The number of house fires has also gone up, as Kabul residents fight the bitter cold with oil and wood-burning stoves. Mohammed Kazim, head of the Kabul fire department, said that there had been three large house fires in the city over the past three weeks, all due to malfunctioning heaters, "No one was injured or killed in these fires but they caused a lot of damage.”

Kabul has been almost totally isolated during this period, as roads to the provinces have been blocked by heavy snow.

Abdul Ghafar, head of the Highway Police, said that there is not enough snow removal equipment to clear the roads. And the frigid temperatures have frozen the engines of the few snow-removal machines they had.

"We have problems on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, on the Jalalabad highway and on the Kabul-Mazar highway," Ghafar said. But with fewer vehicles on the snow clogged roads, the number of traffic accidents has also been less than expected.

"There have been nine traffic accidents but we don't have exact figures of dead and injured," he said.

Tanker trucks delivering aviation fuel from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul airport for use by Ariana, the country’s national airline, have been abandoned in the deep snow. As a result, scores of pilgrims who had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, have been unable to return home because of cancelled flights.

Kabul residents say they have not seen a winter like this in 50 years.

"When I was 10 years old, the weather got cold like this,” said Rosha Gul, 66.

Ghulm Rabani, 55, a resident of the Khairkhwana district, recalled “there was heavy snow 15-20 years ago, but it has never been this cold."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Amanullah Nasrat, Suhaila Muhseni, and Jawad Sharifzada contributed to this article.}