“I felt my sister’s hand beside me”

Trapped under her collapsed home for five hours after the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan, young Gulaba emerged to even more devastation

By Veronica Houser
Gulaba, 7, sits in the tent where she now lives with her family after the earthquake in Afghanistan destroyed her home in Paktika Province.
UNICEF/UN0662324/Bidel
25 June 2022

GAYAN, PAKTIKA PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN – Gulaba was jolted awake to the weight of her whole house on her little body. Just a few hours previous, she had slept peacefully, curled up next to her 10-year-old sister, Mah Gul.

But that night, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook her village in Gayan District, flattening whole neighbourhoods, eradicating livelihoods that depended on destroyed shops and businesses.

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Gayan, Paktika Province, Afghanistan, a man digs through the rubble of Gulaba's collapsed home, attempting to salvage a wood beam for future construction.
UNICEF/UN0662316/Bidel
Gulaba was trapped under her collapsed home for five hours. The house was completely destroyed after the earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan, but this was not the worst of the tragedy.

For five hours, Gulaba was trapped under stones, wood beams, bricks and mud with her brothers, sisters and parents. It was more trauma than any 7-year-old should bear.

"I thought I was dreaming that I was shaking,” she recalls. “But I woke up to a terrible sound of the roof collapsing. I felt that I was in a very tight place and I could not move."

Then she whispers, “I was really afraid.”  

7-year-old Gulaba sits in the tent which became her home after her home collapsed in the Afghanistan earthquake. She draws her body close under head scarf, traumatized by her losses.
UNICEF/UN0662324/Bidel
Gulaba draws her body close and huddles under her scarf, sitting with her family in the tent she now calls home. After the earthquake in Paktika destroyed her home, this is all she has left.

Gulaba's father, Mati Khan, looks haunted. He remembers feeling powerless, helpless, when the earthquake ravaged his community and did nothing but steal from him.

“When the earthquake hit, it was about 1:00 in the morning and we were asleep,” he recounts. “I felt a tremor and I wanted to get up. But the roof collapsed on me and my family.”

Gulaba's father, Mati Khan, tends her little brother, 9-month-old Erfan Khan, who also survived the earthquake, under the tent where they now live. A few blankets, a cot, and the clothes on their back are all that remains of their home.
UNICEF/UN0662331/Bidel
Gulaba's father, Mati Khan, tends her little brother, 9-month-old Erfan Khan, who also survived the earthquake, under the tent where they now live. A few blankets, a cot, and the clothes on their back are all that remains of their home.

Gulaba trembles. Her voice quavers. She hugs her body, as though trying to disappear inside herself.

"When I was under the house, I felt for my sister's hand beside me. Her hands were cold, but I kept calling to her softly: 'What happened to you, Mah Gul?' And she did not answer."

After five hours, neighbours managed to pull Gulaba and her family out from under the rubble.

"I was pulled out from under the rafters, and I saw a white blanket thrown over my sister. I was scared and shaking, and my father hugged me.”

Gulaba’s big, warm family of 12 had become 11. Her older sister, 10-year-old Mah Gul, died in the collapse.

Gulaba crouches between her 9 remaining siblings, with her father beside them. Her mother also survived the earthquake, but Gulaba's 10-year-old sister Mah Gul died when their house collapsed.
UNICEF/UN0662334/Bidel
Gulaba crouches between her 9 remaining siblings, with her father beside them. Her mother also survived the earthquake, but Gulaba's 10-year-old sister Mah Gul died when their house collapsed.

Now Gulaba lives under a tent with her father, mother, and eight surviving brothers and sisters. Their home is gone, along with most of their possessions.

“Everything we own was erased,” says Mati Khan. “Even our cows and sheep died. We are always afraid the earthquake will happen again.”

Gulaba walks around her sparse family compound near the tent where she now lives after the earthquake destroyed her home in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
UNICEF/UN0665841/Bidel
A lucky goat, a few pieces of rubble, and her siblings are all that is left of Gulaba's old life, mostly destroyed by the earthquake which shook her little village in Afghanistan.

A weighted aura of loss hangs over the family. Gulaba, terrified and barely understanding what had happened, developed a high fever after the earthquake. The only available healthcare in the district is through mobile clinics, which UNICEF supports with medical supplies, tents where the sick and injured can seek treatment, and trained professionals.

UNICEF also supports four child-friendly spaces in the earthquake-affected districts, where children can find playthings, friends to seek comfort, trained counsellors and case workers to help them work through their trauma.

And Gulaba's trauma is evident. When she tries to speak about the earthquake, she draws herself in closer, looks away. She struggles to respond with more than a word.

“I cannot sleep at night. I am afraid another earthquake will come, and we will die.”

"I miss my sister," she says softly. "And I am very scared."


In Paktika Province, UNICEF mobile health and nutrition teams are supported by funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Government of Japan and the Government of Sweden. 

Child-friendly spaces in Paktika are supported by the Global Humanitarian Thematic Fund.