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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 20:24 GMT
Afghan thaw reveals winter toll
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Herat

The snow is finally melting and the roads reopening in western and central Afghanistan, and the thaw is revealing the true impact of the worst winter in living memory.

Officially 800 people have died, but many more will no doubt have frozen to death when the snow fell heavier and the temperatures dropped lower than anybody expected.

Frostbite victim in Herat hospital
Many were caught outside during a sudden change in the weather
Ahmad is 18 and he is lying in one of eight beds in a ward at Herat hospital. Everyone there is suffering from frostbite, and some are groaning in agony.

You can see the pain on Ahmad's face as he tries to move himself onto one side - learning to move himself now without his legs, as both have been amputated below the knee and are bandaged.

"I thought I was going to die in the snow," he says. He is a shepherd and was out in the fields with the animals when the blizzard caught him.

"The cold has taken away my legs, and look at my hands - I have lost my fingers."

He was trapped for six days and six nights without any shelter. His brother Abrahim, who's 20, was sent to look for him, but now he lies in the next bed, his legs also claimed by frostbite.

Watching over them is their father, Said Mohammad Sultanzai.

He is more than 40 years old and has never seen anything like it. His uncle, who is much older, says winter has never been as bad.

Said Mohammad explained that in his area, 85 people had been caught out in the open - 18 died and most of the survivors remain in their district, where healthcare is poor, as it is so difficult to get transport to the hospital for treatment.

At the weather centre in Kabul comes an explanation of why this winter has been so bad.

"There have been three problems in the last three weeks," said Abdul Qadir Qadir, president of Afghanistan's meteorological service.

"The first was a low pressure area from Iran, and in this front we had 180cm [71in] of snow.

"Then another front came in from the Gulf, dropping 80cm more, and then a high pressure area from the North Pole - which passed through Siberia - took the temperature down to -30C.

"Our records only go back 10 years, but I have been here more than 30 and have never seen anything like this."

Roads blocked

The extreme temperatures and heavy snow struck parts of the country that are not usually hit.

Heavy snow in mountains
All that can be seen from the air is a vast blanket of snow
"About 800 people died, many around Herat and Herat province," says Dr Abdul Matin Adrak, director of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority.

"All the people were out of their houses with animals, they were busy with them on the land, but the snow struck and they died."

Central and western Afghanistan are very remote and mountainous. Many roads are still blocked and it could be some time before the true extent of the crisis is uncovered.

"We don't have the transport to get to them, or the machinery to clear the roads," Dr Adrak adds, appealing for the international community inside and outside Afghanistan to help.

But the United Nations and other organisations have already begun work.

"Currently we have assisted over 12,000 families in the west of Afghanistan," says Dan McNorton, a UN spokesman.

"We provided them with food and non-food items, including basic shelter for those people who have been displaced as a result of dramatically low temperatures and an exceptionally cold winter."

All that can be seen from the air is a vast and mountainous blanket of snow. Tens of thousands of animals have perished, and that will have a long-term impact on communities.

Then there is the fear of flooding as temperatures increase and metres of snow begin to melt.

The winter may have kept the fighting down to a minimum across much of Afghanistan, but it has still left millions of people in misery.

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