Nepal earthquake anniversary: between frustration and hope

Nepal earthquake anniversary: between frustration and hope

For the past two days, Nepalis have held memorial services across the country to mark the first anniversary of the 2015 earthquake24th April signals one year after the quake according to the Nepali calendar, and 25th April is one year after according to the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Whilst there were symbolic gestures such as lighting candles and laying wreaths by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, ordinary people voiced frustration with his government for the lack of progress in reconstruction efforts. Aftershock Nepal talked to a range of people during this emotionally wrought time, and many spoke with sadness of what they had lost. But there was also a sense of collective optimism and hope for the future.

‘It’s already been a year and the government has done nothing’

Suresh Dhungel at Maitighar Mandal, Kathmandu

Story: Enika Rai
Photo: Enika Rai

“I am shocked. I came here to pray for everyone who lost their life during the earthquake. But they did not allow me to enter the event. Why? Because our prime minister came and normal people were not allowed in. Does our pray and condolence mean nothing compared to the prime minister? More so, it’s already been a year and the government has done nothing but do speeches at reconstruction events. I know that the youth of Nepal is ready to help out. At least I am ready to work for free for the earthquake victims.”

Suresh Dhungel | Maitighar Mandala

 

‘I work without break. But I am happy’

Beemala Gandel, Kalyanpur, Kathmandu

Story: Rupa Khadka, Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I loved my house. I saved and invested everything into it. Sometimes I went without eating. But it collapsed. What can I do about it? Nothing. My husband works abroad, in Saudi Arabia. With the money he sends and a loan, I pay the workers to help me reconstruct my house. We use the rubble of the old one. It needs to be done as soon as possible because it’s almost monsoon season. So I work without break. But I am happy. At least all my children are with me. Many people lost their children and they have gone away. But this is my home. I love the nature and weather here. All the people I know live here. So do all my gods and goddesses. I will stay.”

Beemala Gandel | Kalyanpur

 

‘Now it is our turn to rebuild our culture. After every earthquake Nepal only becomes stronger’

Abinash Adhikari, Swayambhunath, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I am proud to say that I’m born here, just around the corner from the monkey temple. Kathmandu is the cultural hub of the world. Today we came here to pray for the peace of the earthquake victims. But I am sure that soon these temples will be rebuilt. The older generation of artists are passing down their knowledge to the younger ones. Now it is our turn to rebuild our culture. After every earthquake Nepal only becomes stronger.”

Abinash Adhikari | Swayambhunath

 

‘It finally feels like we bicycle riders have a voice and we are ruling the street’

Cyclist Suraj Silwal, Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Story: Sven Wolters, Sameen Poudel
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I used to ride my motorbike everywhere. But the earthquake and the blockade afterwards stopped the fuel supply to Nepal. I started riding a bicycle instead. And even though I already broke my leg twice in accidents, I feel a lot stronger and healthier than I used to. And for the last eight months, I did not use a single litre of petrol. There’s more bicycle riders than last year and we are reducing the pollution levels. I am proud of myself and especially during this symbolic bike ride along the heritage sites today, it finally feels like we bicycle riders have a voice and we are ruling the street.”

Suraj Silwal | Patan Durbar Square

 

‘Sometimes I ask myself: “Why didn’t I just die in the earthquake?”’

Mina Nepali, Nuwakot, Nepal

Story: Enika Rai
Photo: Enika Rai

“All I ever got was one package of rice, one blanket and a tent, from an NGO. I didn’t get any relief money from the government and my name is not on any list for compensation of destroyed houses. But I did have a cottage. I built it all by myself, but it was on land owned by someone else. Now I have nothing and I have to work as a construction worker, for 600 rupees [approximately £3.8] a day. I can’t skip a day because I need to pay for food and school of my children. My son is six years old and my daughter is eight. Life is so hard. My children and me don’t have proper food, clothes and shelter. Sometimes I ask myself: “Why didn’t I just die in the earthquake?” But I have to live and be strong for my children’s sake.”

Mina Nepali | Nuwakot

 

‘Many people died. Since then business has been slow’

Pujan Khadka Pradhan, Dharahara, Kathmandu

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I ran out of my shop and looked back. It was scary. There was screaming everywhere. My mind was blank. I would never have thought that Dharahara could collapse. But then I saw it shaking from side to side, five times each side. Then it fell. Many people died. Since then business has been slow. There are a lot less Nepalese tourists here. But many more Westerners than before come by. To take a picture of the ruin.”

Pujan Bhakta Pradhan | Dharahara, Kathmandu

 

‘I am scared every day me and my family live in this house’

father-patan-sven

Story: Nitika Shrestha
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I am scared every day me and my family live in this house. It is only supported by teku [wooden poles] and there are cracks everywhere. But I don’t have any alternative. I am paying 5000 rupees rent for this whole house. Renting a single room in a safer place may cost me 3000 to 3500 rupees and with a family of seven I can’t afford that. I don’t know if I will get support from the government. Engineers inspected this house but they didn’t tell us anything. The landlord said that maybe next year they will start repairing it.”

Hari Krishna Shrestha | Patan

 

‘I stayed away from this place for five months’

Football coach P.D. Tiwari, Tudikhel, Kathmandu

Story: Sameen Poudel
Photo: Sameen Poudel

“Like every day I went here for my morning walk on the day of the earthquake. It was the most shocking experience I ever had. That is why I stayed away from this place for five months. Now I am retired and I come here again for my morning walk and to teach football to some youngsters and children in the evening. They call me  guru ba [teacher]. I am a sports enthusiast and people need this public space for exercise. But these days I don’t see much people around here. That is why I call on the government to clear all the rubble from broken buildings they dumped here as soon as possible”

P D Tiwari | Tudikhel, Kathmandu

 

‘Kathmandu is a very high-speed city and we have all been working hard to restore it’

Cricket-Sven-Thundikel

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“It’s very exciting to play cricket here at Thudikel. After the earthquake people came here for shelter but now we use it for leisure. It shows that one thing is for sure. Kathmandu is a very high-speed city and we have all been working hard to restore it. People who come to visit will not even realise any more that we have been through this national disaster.”

Ashwini Gupta | Tudikhel, Kathmandu

 

‘The charm of this place has gone with the earthquake’

Construction worker Kumari Birbal, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Nepal

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Sven Wolters

“The charm of this place has gone with the earthquake. I used to come here often and look at the temples before. But now for two days I have been working here to reconstruct the damage. This was the Khauma Dhwake [white gate]. There used to be meat offerings to the Gods here. It feels good to be working to reconstruct this site, it makes me happy. It is something that I can tell my children and my friends about.”

Kumari Birbal | Bhaktapur Durbar Square

 

‘We are trying to revive all the old technologies for earthquake resistance’

Architect Rakesh Maharjan, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Story: Einar Thorsen
Photo: Pratik Rana

“I completed my architecture degree two years ago and I’m currently involved in an NGO that specialises in rural housing. The earthquake gave us an opportunity to learn about things we’ve previously only read in books, and we didn’t get a deep understanding of it—the real thing. After the earthquake we started to see the temples differently, we started to see the structural components differently. We are trying to revive all the old technologies for earthquake resistance. I’m quite disappointed with the government because we feel they have been delaying the reconstruction work. If we as even just a small NGO of 5-10 people can build houses and also 2,300 temporary shelters in such a short time, then why can’t the government? They have the expertise, they have the materials, but maybe they don’t believe in the traditional structures or they’re unsure which technology to follow. They should believe the traditional technology, because what has been built using traditional technology is still standing.”

Rakesh Maharjan | Bhaktapur Durbar Square

 

‘I might seem okay now, but every night I cry’

Ratna Kuwari Khadka, Singati, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“I got 50,000 rupees from the government to reconstruct my house. But I am old. So how can I do it all by myself? They told me that the money is for starting to build my house. But how can I afford to remove the rubble of my old house then? And if I don’t use the money as they say, they’ll take it back, they said. I don’t know what to do. I might seem okay now, but every night I cry. Because as soon as I got the money, my sons started fighting me in court about the land ownership.”

Ratna Kuwari Khadka | Singati

 

‘Me and my wife are still rebuilding houses for others’

Survivor Ram Bahadur, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Pratik Rana

“It’s been a year now and me and my wife are still rebuilding houses for others, so that we can earn enough money to rebuild our own. But it’ll be another year or more before we can.”

Ram Bahadur Mazar | Bhaktapuq

 

‘Whenever I pass by my old home, my body shakes with fear’

Rejina Bhattari, Kirtipur, Nepal

Story: Mandira Dulal
Photo:
Mandira Dulal

“I was about to close my eyes. Suddenly, my bed started shaking. At first, I didn’t know what was happening. Then I quickly picked up my phone and my laptop and I ran. The scene behind my door looked like the Titanic. The building was sinking! The marbles and walls were turning into pieces. Without shoes I sprinted through the hall and got outside. When I looked behind, I thought it was a miracle that my life was saved. I met my sister only in the evening that day. We both cried a lot holding each other. The next day I dreaded to go back. But I had to look for my stuff. I saw pieces of gifts from my friends and my collection of tiny memorabilia, things I had collected with love and passion. The only thing I found intact was an old sack of books. Now whenever I pass by my old home, my body shakes with fear.”

Rejina Bhattari | Kirtipur

 

‘I still expect to see the tower when I’m here’

Vasisht Pradha, Kathmandu, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“Since I was a little boy I came up here to see the Dharahara tower. You could see the top half of it from here. Back then the public was not allowed to enter. I always wanted to go. A few years ago it finally opened. It was awesome. The stairways were really crazy. But the best part of it was the view from up there. You could see all of Kathmandu. When the earthquake happened I ran up here. I could not see anything. There was dust everywhere. I still expect to see the tower when I’m here. And the government said they will rebuild it right away. But nothing has happened. I don’t think it ever will. I had brought a piece of rubble from the tower, as a token, but my mother said it would only bring bad luck. So I threw it away.”

Vasisht Pradha | Kathmandu

 

‘I feel honoured to have the ability to help victims to reconstruct their houses’

Engineer Manja Khadka, Kathmandu, Nepal

Story: Sven Wolters
Photo: Sven Wolters

“Many earthquake victims think we cannot help them. But at this workshop for engineers we learnt how to build earthquake resilient houses from nothing but mud and stone. That is important because these are the local materials used in most villages. I feel honoured to have the ability to help victims to reconstruct their houses. When we go out there and they see how we can support them they are very grateful. And that is the best part of my job.”

Manja Khadka | Kathmandu

 

‘It has been a year now since the stadium had any games and matches’

Taekwondo fighter Tej Bohara, Dasarath Rangasala Stadium, Kathmandu

Story: Pratik Rana
Photo: Sven Wolters

“This stadium is like a temple for us. I love this place. Now it looks deserted and that makes me feel sad. It has been a year now since the stadium had any games and matches. Before we used to have national football league. I don’t know if it’s the lack of cooperation or lack of money, but the government seems to be very slow and reconstruction is as it is. We give what it takes, we give all our sweat and blood, but when the government don’t meet your expectations it just makes you feel very low.”

Tej Bohara | Dasarath Rangasala Stadium, Kathmandu

The man behind the Stories

“I never thought people would come to interview me,” said Jaydev Poudyal, smiling warmly, as he arrived at the pretty garden café in central Kathmandu one sunny afternoon. The friendly 36-year-old is interviewed a lot. His blog, Stories of Nepal, was inspired by the runaway success of Humans of New York. Stories of Nepal started in 2013 with a photograph of a tea boy, and now, nearly 209,140 Facebook followers later, its beautiful photographs and stories have been a showcase for humanity in, among other places, post-earthquake Nepal.

I was eager to meet the man behind it. After all, in many ways Aftershock Nepal, the project I was in Nepal for, and the stories Poudyal published had a lot in common, seeking as they do to tell ordinary people’s stories. I had been admiring Poudyal’s blog for some months, impressed at the way in which he managed to bring out such humanity in his interviewees, and for the powerful photographs that seemed to instantly connect the viewer with the subject.

“In Nepal when the earthquake happened a lot of mainstream media showed how people needed relief and how people were desperate,” said Poudyal. “People had lost their family, people had lost their property, but I think in terms of individual people they were not desperate. These are very strong people. They have lived in hills and mountains for their entire lives, for generations and generations, and they’ve seen the storm, they’ve seen the rain, they’ve seen the flood, they’ve seen the quake. They’ve seen poverty, and people die because they couldn’t provide them medicine because the nearest health care clinic was 15 hours walk. Some of the villages I went to, people said, ‘We just want to know we are in a country where there is someone willing to listen to us.'”

Poudyal did more than just listen. Stories of Nepal also launched a fundraising drive, which brought in more than $9,000 for the construction of shelters. But this came as a by-product of the blog’s success in bringing earthquake survivors closer to its readers. “The media was focused on showing all the destruction. That’s what sells, right? That’s what gets the money, right? I wanted to show the strength and the resilience and the hope, genuinely, not manipulated—first-hand stories of individuals who were directly affected by the earthquake.”

“For me, journalism should be, ‘There was a village, where 200 families died, and there lived Ram, an 18-year-old kid, who had a dream to do something. And now after the earthquake he wants to build a school.’ You see? That’s the difference with Stories of Nepal and mainstream media.”

The focus on the genuine feelings of people affected by disaster is something I would agree is often missing from mainstream reports, which can often have the effect of transforming individuals, with all their complexities, into simply victims. “The way the mainstream media reports—150 people died, 200 houses fell down—is statistics,” he said. “For me, journalism should be, ‘There was a village, where 200 families died, and there lived Ram, an 18-year-old kid, who had a dream to do something. And now after the earthquake he wants to build a school.’ You see? That’s the difference with Stories of Nepal and mainstream media.”

 

READING THROUGH Stories of Nepal, you can’t help but feel affected. The majority of stories are unrelated to the earthquake, and many that show people amid the post-earthquake rubble talk about other aspects of their lives. But some of the post-quake stories touch you deeply. One is of a man called Yuvaraj Dhami, interviewed in the days after the earthquake: “I haven’t even sat down to breathe,” he says, alongside a photograph taken of him among many others in Tudikhel in Kathmandu, where many newly homeless camped. “Yesterday, looking at these kids and all the people who have taken refuge here, my eyes welled up. My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye.”

“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck,” says Sanistaar, from Dhadhing, in another of the stories. “Just a night before, I and my wife were talking about the kids, you know how they will eventually grow up and start demanding things for themselves. I told her that at least we had the house. Now, you can only see the remains of it.”

I asked Poudyal if surrounding himself with such stories is ever overwhelming. “Oh yes, many times,” he said. “If I talk to someone and she’s sharing a story with me, I actually imagine myself speaking, saying the story. So for me your sorrow becomes my sorrow, I am inside this space of the storyteller, I cry sometimes when they cry, and I laugh when they are laughing, and I come home and it’s sometimes very hard for me to detach because it’s just difficult sometimes.

“Sometimes I feel, why am I doing this? Why am I torturing myself, listening to these sorrowful people? And sometimes I go to a village and they invite me to a local party and they welcome me and I make so many friends. I have people who love me so much and send messages and blessings, and I think, this is why I’m doing Stories of Nepal. Sometimes when the stories are very touching it’s difficult for me to detach, but sometimes that’s the price I pay.”

“My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye," <a href="http://www.storiesofnepal.com/eyes-cry/">says Yuvaraj Dhami from Salyan</a>, in one of the Stories of Nepal. Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)

“My son spotted me wiping my tears and asked me if I was crying. I just said it was an insect in my eye,” says Yuvaraj Dhami from Salyan, in one of the Stories of Nepal. Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)


IF WE  
rewind a little, to when we first arrived at the café, Poudyal’s own story gives some background to how his stories have such intimacy. We had just sat down and ordered—me a coffee, him a sandwich—and Poudyal began to explain how Stories of Nepal started life.

“For the past 15 to 20 years, I had been living life in alcoholism and addiction, I pretty much destroyed everything,” he said. “After I’d been discharged from rehab several months, I had nothing to do. I didn’t see a point in continuing my life. I had no sense of purpose. I didn’t see a future. I saw Humans of New York, and I had always had a romance for travelling, but, being an alcoholic, I could hardly get my ass off the couch.”

He had little expectations when he posted his first story, of a boy who would serve him tea outside his house. “I posted it and got 10 likes and messages from friends,” he said. “I then searched online for Humans of Nepal, but it was taken. So I chose Stories of Nepal, because ‘stories’ has a sense of nostalgia and melancholy. It reminded me of the folklore of my grandparents. I started doing it every day. I went out on my bike to Sindupalchok with my wife and brought in a lot of stories. When people see the story with the picture, it’s like people are talking to you.”

The project immediately began to give Poudyal a sense of purpose, and when he returned from his first story-gathering expedition, he knew he had to make some other big changes to his life. “I had a business, an advertising agency,” he said. “I was always looking for a name, fame and power. I wanted to be known, I was very materialistic. I had a lot of character defects that I can clearly see now. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and the spiritual part of that was the one that I wanted to follow. It gave me a lot of peace which I had never had. Before that I could never sit still, I couldn’t accept what I was, I was always fighting with myself.”

Part of his transformation was to give away his business to his partners—“I took my MacBook, that was the only thing I took”—and decided to dedicate his time and energy to his blog. “I was scared because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just couldn’t see any future, just my blog. But I was really passionate, and I think what also helped was that I really didn’t have any ambition with Stories of Nepal. I was just on a journey of redemption and salvation, to actually learn more about myself. I just wanted to understand life. I was looking for some kind of freedom—freedom from myself, freedom from the bondage of the self. I started travelling more, I started collecting deeper stories, I started taking routes that were normally less travelled.”

What struck me about Poudyal’s story was that he never aimed to make Stories of Nepal the sensation that it is. I got the sense that there was a slight level of bemusement from him about the blog’s success.

“I understand that without Stories of Nepal I could still function. It’s not a very big deal to me that people are liking it. I appreciate it, of course, but I know that everything comes to an end, right? I understand the futility in everything—relationships, this world, our having tea and coffee—everything is temporary. That gives me a lot of humility to keep my feet on the ground. Just being OK, you know?” A smile grew on his face and he started to laugh. “I had that on my chest!” he said, just as his sandwich arrived. He immediately pushed one half of it in my direction, “Do you want to have one?”

“It’s my own pain, my own struggle, which is the essence of Stories of Nepal. Without that I would not be able to be so empathetic and comprehend what people are saying.”

He took a bite of food and quickly continued, “You might think, there’s this guy, he takes out his camera and he takes pictures and talks to people for five minutes and posts them on Facebook. But it’s my own pain, my own struggle, which is the essence of Stories of Nepal. Without that I would not be able to be so empathetic and comprehend what people are saying. I’ve seen a lot of things, from being paid $75 for an hour in Australia, to begging for 50 cents in train stations so that I could buy booze. I’ve seen the full scale from being on top to begging and living on the streets. The doctors had told me that if you continue drinking like this your liver is going to explode and you are going to die.”

 

“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck," says Sanistaar, in Dhadhing, <a href="http://www.storiesofnepal.com/for-the-kids/?genre=popup">in one of the Stories of Nepal</a>. The kids were watching TV since it was a Saturday." <em>Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)</em>

“I was sitting outside listening to the radio when it struck,” says Sanistaar, in Dhadhing, in one of the Stories of Nepal. The kids were watching TV since it was a Saturday.” Photo: Jaydev Poudyal, Stories of Nepal (used with permission)

POUDYAL’S ADDICTIONS also had a huge impact on the relationship he had with his wife, who stood by him through his darkest moments. He spoke warmly and frequently of his appreciation of her. “Back then I was looking for some sort of security for the future, and I was going to drink and there had to be somebody to take care of me.” It must feel like beginning an entirely new relationship now, following that ordeal, I suggest to him. “Exactly, I was never capable to love, or be loved, and complained no one loved me and no one cared. If someone came to help me I would shut myself from them.

“So I think what I’ve been through helped me collect these stories, because in Nepal there are many problems, lots of sorrow, lots of grief. People are poor and they have struggles every day. So, when I listen to them, I can relate because I’ve been there in suffering. I know how it is to be afraid and be down and depressed. I’ve seen that shit, right? I think it’s easier for me to understand. I don’t think Stories of Nepal would be there without my past.”

Poudyal was not the driven individual he could possibly have been. The blog was not an attempt at fame or fortune, or a personal challenge to attain likes and shares. It was all beginning to make sense. I told him so. “Getting a story is not a job, it’s not a mission,” he said. “It comes from a genuine want to talk to the other person and understand them. As soon at the other person sees that, they are willing to open up more. It’s also me sharing my fears and my struggles, it’s a two-way process.

“Sometimes I pursue a story-teller for months, sometimes a story can happen in an hour, sometimes I am walking with the person for days and then I talk to them.”

“How do I get such touching stories? That’s what I do. After I have breakfast, I take my camera and walk. I go everywhere. If I talk to ten people, maybe I get five that I like and maybe there are only three pictures I really like for the blog. Sometimes I pursue a story-teller for months, sometimes a story can happen in an hour, sometimes I am walking with the person for days and then I talk to them. Through all these entire dialogues of conversation I choose a part that’s really touched me.”

I admit to Poudyal that I didn’t expect such depth in his answers to my questions, based on the many other interviews I had read of him in the international press, which tended to focus on the more technical aspects of his work. “I get so many questions: how did Stories of Nepal start? How do you get stories? Sometimes I feel like, can I write the questions for you, so you know what would make those questions better? Can I?” he laughs. “I want to say that to the interviewer, but I can’t be rude, right?”

How often does he get interviewed? “Oh, a lot, a lot,” he replied. “I like to talk, and one of the times I really get to share is through interviews, and I am really not looking for my thoughts to be printed or published, but I want to be nice. If someone likes Stories of Nepal and they want to spend their time talking to me, I shouldn’t say no. I am not really the interview kind of guy, I have made myself aware of the fact that because Stories of Nepal is appreciated, it’s my duty to.

“All the Nepali newspapers have interviewed me, and the LA Times, the Gulf Times, even this fashion magazine, Grazia from Germany. But I always know that if these things were not to happen I’d still be doing Stories of Nepal.”

Even if you still only had those 10 Facebook likes you started with, I ask? “Of course, of course,” he responded quickly. “This is the best thing, travelling, listening. Lots of people send me messages saying I inspired them. When I was on the streets I would be treated like a dog, now my life has changed, it feels very special, a gift given to me. I think a sense of gratitude keeps me going. I will go home tonight and I will pray, not for me—I’ve done that enough—I’ll pray for the well-being, happiness for other people. I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray for everyone. I’m really grateful.”

Poudyal pointed to his half-finished sandwich to illustrate his point. “I had disgusting food in rehab, the conditions were very terrible. They treated us like criminals. Because I ate such bad food, now this sandwich is a miracle for me. I’m so grateful for everything, there was one time when I wanted to jump off a cliff but now I’m looking forward to everyday life.”

We sat in silence for a minute, before it was broken by Poudyal. “I think you have enough for two interviews now,” he said, laughing. It was time for us to finish our appointment. I said I would pay the bill. No, he insisted, I was his guest. “I thought you were my guest?” I responded. Too late, he had grabbed the waiter. I took some photographs of him, which, perhaps in keeping with his character but still a little ironically, he was shy about. He even insisted on giving me a lift to my bus stop on his motorbike, on the way showing me the house he had grown up in, and telling me more about what I should see in Kathmandu during my stay. As we parted, I felt like we had known each other for a long time.

A wise friend once told me that you can see a hundred places in the world with one pair of eyes, or you can see one place in the world with a hundred pairs of eyes. Perhaps that is the power of projects like Stories of Nepal, one that journalists should take heed of. Too often our profession can see the excitement of the big events without narrowing our scope to explore them through the eyes and experiences of the hundreds of people affected by them. After all, our job should be to help people understand the world they are living in, and that’s not always easy when our subjects are given brief, walk-on parts, providing the lines we want them to provide, and filling in the gaps in our reports with the words we expect them to give us. And in learning about Stories of Nepal, I had found a story I did not expect to hear, but which made a lot of sense.

Healing with laughter

The street is dusty and lined with rubble, swept into orderly piles. Across the road, half of a five-storey building stands out conspicuously, its bright pink wallpaper and zig-zagging stairs giving the impression of peering into a dismembered doll’s house. Groups of men and women sit on the sidewalk opposite, some playing card games, others chatting. A few have noticed the curious blue carpet that has been rolled out, and are waiting with anticipation as to what, if anything, will happen.

Music begins to play. And soon, an unexpected figure emerges.  She has pink hair, green hotpants and an unmistakeable clown nose. Then another one appears, in a multi-coloured jumpsuit, sporting the same red nose. At first, the children are wary of the strange figures who are not quite adult, definitely not children, but so eager to play and so childishly fascinated by everything they see. Then a small boy with a green hoodie and a mischievous grin jumps off the swing and runs over to them. Within minutes, there is a Pied Piper effect and a large crowd of children has gathered. The adults begin to draw closer too, looking bewilderedly at the group of seven clowns who now grace the blue carpet stage, dancing, inviting the audience to laugh with them, to be silly and just have fun.

Before the earthquake, the historic village of Bungamati was one of the prettiest parts of the Kathmandu valley, frequently visited by tourists who would come to see the ancient temples and monuments. Since the earthquake last April, most of the visitors have been aid groups or volunteers, and now, the remains of half-destroyed buildings and crumbling temples are evidence that reconstruction is still a long way off. But on this sunny day, a group of people have arrived who definitely don’t want to talk about the earthquake. It’s the result of a unique collaboration between Circus Kathmandu and Clowns Without Borders, two organisations who both use theatre and play as a means to overcome trauma.  And increasingly, people in the humanitarian sector are beginning to realise the unique value of the performing arts in bringing relief to people in a time of disaster.

“After a tragedy, people are so traumatised and so busy with figuring out practical things like where they’re going to sleep, that they forget to laugh,” says Micael Bogar, who has a background in conflict resolution and applied theatre and has been a volunteer with Clowns Without Borders since 2009. The international ‘humanitarian clowning’ movement has chapters in 12 countries and has sent teams to perform in places such as the refugee camps of Lesbos, Greece, and the evacuation centres of post-Typhoon Philippines (Bogar was part of that group), in partnership with local and international NGOs.

Jamuna Tamang and Juliana Frick greet the crowd

Jamuna Tamang and Juliana Frick greet the crowd of children who have cautiously gathered to watch the clowns’ performance. “There’s usually a warm up where they’re checking us out and getting comfortable. By the end it’s awesome, it’s crazy,” says Frick.

Bogar and her teammate Juliana Frick, both from San Francisco, came to Nepal after being invited to take part in a two-week tour of earthquake-affected areas by Circus Kathmandu, the country’s first professional circus group. Founded by filmmaker and circus artist Sky Neal in 2010 as a programme to provide support for children who had been trafficked into Indian circuses, Circus Kathmandu is now made up of 13 young people who are using their skills to forge sustainable careers, performing professionally in Nepal and internationally. They also conduct regular outreach work with street children and, more recently, earthquake survivors. After Bungamati, which is a mere 20-minute drive from Circus Kathmandu’s training centre in Jhamsikhel, the team—comprising the two Americans and six members of Circus Kathmandu—would be travelling further afield to more isolated Himalayan communities, such as the village of Ghyachchok, which lies close to the epicentre of the earthquake in the Gorkha district.

It’s not the first time Circus Kathmandu has visited Ghyachchok. In June 2015, the troupe embarked on a four-day trip to Gorkha as part of an outreach project called ‘Artworks’, which involved dancers, artists and educators. The group began by performing for the primary school children at the village, followed by a circus skills activity session.

“At first, the girls didn’t want to touch the boys and vice versa. But we mixed them all in one group and played games,” says Jamuna Tamang, who joined Circus Kathmandu five years ago after being trafficked into an Indian circus as a teenager. “By the second day, they felt free and they were running all over the place. We didn’t provide anything material to them but we gave them self-confidence and motivation,” she says.

In the context of a disaster, circus and clowning fall under the category of psychosocial relief, a way of helping survivors to deal with the emotional impact of what they’ve been through by using joy and laughter. Niranjan Kunwar, a writer and education consultant who led the Artworks outreach project, believes that for young children this can be more effective than dwelling too much on the cause of the trauma. “I happen to think they just need a normal schedule after what they’ve been through,” he says. “Talking too much about the earthquake may not be helpful.”

Teams of Artworks volunteers have so far made three trips to earthquake-hit rural villages—isolated, neglected communities whose problems have only been exacerbated by the disaster. Kunwar’s aim is to use art, in all its forms, to plant the seeds of inspiration. “We’re showing them certain things. As an educator I believe that once you spark someone’s imagination, many things could happen,” he says.

Bowing at end of show

After Bungamati, the group travelled to isolated rural communities in Dolakha and Gorkha districts, including the village of Ghyachchok, which lies close to the epicentre of the April earthquake.

Bogar is more frank about clowning’s specific role in post-disaster contexts. “Laughter is a healing, powerful thing,” she says. “The simple reminder of ‘Hey, we’re all still here. The sun is shining.’ It’s delicate to come in and say that to someone, but it’s really important!”

Bogar, however, is clear that this kind of relief only has a place after essential needs have been met. “We have this philosophy that humanitarian clowning is amazing, but it doesn’t bring you food and shelter and medical aid, and those are the first things that need to happen,” she says. “We don’t go into places that haven’t had this initial support.”

In Bungamati, by the end of the short performance (which involves a queen, three thieves, a magical crown and some impressive acrobatics), the previously shy and cautious children have been well and truly won over. Jumping and laughing, they swarm the stage, and a sense of delight pervades the air in this usually quiet street: a small piece of magic in an unlikely setting.

‘This disaster has brought a new challenge to the lives of single women’

The Nepal earthquake has led to a crisis that disproportionally affects women. Some 55 per cent of those affected by the disaster are women, more than a quarter of whom are heads of their households. One organisation that quickly threw itself into supporting them was the Women for Human Rights (WHR). The group was founded by Lily Thapa, a fellow of Ashoka, an international body of leaders who use innovative techniques to bring about social change. WHR has members across 73 districts, and supports widows—or single women, as they are termed—who have suffered years of hardship during the 1996-2006 civil war between the Maoists and the monarchy, and now, the natural disaster.

In the days immediately following the earthquake, WHR mobilised more than a hundred volunteers to raise funds, collect and distribute much-needed relief materials, and provide support and counselling to numerous victims. That is a major achievement for a group operating out of a small office in Kathmandu. Patrick Ward met with Thapa to discuss her work and the challenges facing women in post-earthquake Nepal. Excerpts from that conversation:

This disaster brought a new challenge to the lives of single women. They had been living on their own in small houses, surviving on their own, but because of the earthquake their houses have been destroyed. They are saying that the conflict has taken our husbands and now the earthquake has taken our housing. Nearly 70,000 of our members’ houses have been damaged, many single women themselves died, many of them lost their children. I can’t even explain how much they’ve been facing. They were trying to survive on their own, but this disaster has brought another disaster to their lives.

Households with male family members immediately took action to clear debris. But the women who don’t have men, nobody was there to help them. All of their neighbours’ houses have been damaged, so they were all busy with their own houses. That was the first challenge all the single women faced.
lily-computer
The second one was that the relief was given in such a way that people just went and grabbed things. The government tried to have a system, but it was not happening on the ground. Many organisations went with small things. One organisation with rice, one with chow-chows, some others with clothes. Everybody was giving small, small things for the village people, and whoever had the power just grabbed it and got it. So many of these women were unable to get relief properly. Some people got many things, some people got nothing.

Just this morning we had a case where a father came to report his girl has been molested. The girl is just 16. There are lots of cases like that.

Most of the families live in a joint family system [sharing a house], but now the house is damaged. So the in-laws, the brother-in-laws, the father-in-laws, they are also in the tent. We saw more than 40 people sleeping in one tent. We have recorded more than 200 cases of sexual violence in the camps and the tents. Just this morning we had a case where a father came to report his girl has been molested by her neighbour. The girl is just 16. It’s traumatising. She is not able to even come out of the tent. There are lots of cases like that.

In our society, when you are menstruating, you are not allowed to touch anyone. So, many families did not allow menstruating women to sleep in the same tent. These women slept outside. They do not realise they are being discriminated against. When we spoke to the survivors, especially to teenage girls, they found it very difficult. They don’t have a place to change their dress, no proper place to take a bath. In some camps they made a tent for bathing. But people burnt holes in the tent with cigarettes to peep in on them. So these teenagers could hardly take baths.

lily-looking

Most families are in the joint family system and the government has the policy to give one compensation per house. But the problem is that the house is damaged, so they are living separately. And the government is providing money for one family, and the money is being taken by the father-in-law or by the brother-in-law or head of the house.  The single women get nothing.

Besides that, most of the single women have lost their legal documents in the damaged houses. Some of them have lost their citizenship card. Most have lost their relationship card. Based on the relationship card they get property, and other ID cards, like death certificates for their husbands. We started mobilising support staff and councillors in every camp in many districts immediately after the disaster. Besides distributing the relief, we trained them: how to get the ID card, how to get the legal documents, how to write an application. Our support staff help them to have access to all these government facilities.

We’ve also been collecting data on the single women affected. We have collected almost 8,000 survivors’ data from six districts, and we’ve been analysing what their needs are. We’re making a holistic report on the survivors’ needs and aspirations—how do they feel, what are the challenges—and providing this information to the government, the district offices, the UN clusters.

Besides that, we have been providing the shelters. We’ve been running chhari [shade under the tree] centres and provide psychosexual counselling and legal advice. We are doing a partnership with Oxfam, making women’s centres in villages in Gorkha, Dhading, Nuwakot and Kathmandu. They’re small places, for those people whose houses are all damaged.

2015: a year of devastation

The earthquake of 25 April 2015 affected all sections of the Nepali society. What was previously taken for granted — houses, home, family, economic stability — is now viewed with sadness by many. As the new year begins, we look back at the year past, and hopes for the future, through the reflections of some whose lives have changed immeasurably.

‘I am 25 years old. In these 25 years I have never seen a worse situation’

Mandira Dulal

Mandira Dulal. Photo: Patrick Ward

The year was full of pain and difficulties. Every house has got its own sorrowful story, and every Nepalese citizen suffer as we begin the new year. Some suffer from wounds, some were homeless and some have lost their relatives. It was such a situation that I cannot express it in words. Because of the earthquake, the nation bears such economic and physical loss! For a developing nation like Nepal this loss is more than a misfortune.

Dashain and Tihar were spent in tents and zinc houses. Happiness used to bloom in every Nepalese courtyard. But this year these things were replaced by pain, problems and difficulties. In many houses, meat used to be cooked during Dashain, sel and roti was the special dish. But the Indian blockade and fuel crisis didn’t let us cook such food.

The Nepalese were victimised twice, thrice. First, political conflict already existed here. Second, the earthquake made the situation messed up. Finally, India’s blockade and fuel crisis made the situation much worse. The development of the nation has been pushed back 20 years because of all these things. Many youth don’t see a future in this country; I don’t see a career here. The black market has become rooted. Food prices have increased. There is no electricity. Who likes darkness? Nobody.

I wondered how the earthquake victims are spending their cold nights in zinc houses. How are the small babies and old people? They must have hundreds of problems. The blockade issues have shadowed the victims’ issues.

I am 25 years old. In these 25 years I have never seen a worse situation and never faced such difficulties as I faced this year. I wish no any nation or region face such a tragedy as Nepal has had to bear this year. Every nation has the right to live peacefully.

I am worried for my family. As a mother, it was very difficult to protect my two-year-old baby. The quake left me in fear every second. I keep on holding her, my eyes are stuck on her, my mind and heart focused on her. I fear every night when I go to bed. If an earthquake occurs when I am sleeping, what should I do? Where should I run? I couldn’t focus on study or work because of this. The sound from a bus or bike can terrify me.

Failure and loss are the stepping stones to success. Nepalis should take this loss as an opportunity to develop. It is natural platform to recover, and to reconstruct a beautiful Nepal by our own hands and efforts. Each individual should contribute to that.

Mandira Dulal Aftershock Nepal reporter, Tribhuvan University

 

‘I felt like crying but I didn’t. At that point of time I had to be the strongest’

Parimita Rana, Kathmandu

Paramita Rana. Photo: Namita Rao

I was still sleeping in my bed when the earthquake hit Nepal. I was up the previous night, Friday, till 3am watching movies. I felt a sudden jolt. I woke up confused. My mind did not register immediately that it was an earthquake. Once it did, the fear of death started creeping in. I started crying and I ran to check on my grandmother, who was in the other room. I then pulled out a suitcase and stuffed it with my first aid box, food and clothes, and pulled my grandmother and ran out of the building. To my horror, there were buildings crumbling down.

In our neighbourhood, the community had built a huge tent and we lived together there for a month. We ate boiled potatoes with salt for the first week. Our only source of news was from the radio. Even newspapers weren’t available that week. It was so scary. I saw so much devastation around me. People everywhere had lost their homes and loved ones. I felt really bad. I thought to myself, I have perfectly working arms, legs and limbs, so why not help those in need?

I live outside the valley, where one can find a lot of old Newari houses built of mud and bricks. Most homes were completely destroyed as a result, and the people who survived were badly injured. My neighbour and I came together and bought basic medicines and first aid and distributed it to those in need. I was heartbroken to see all of it. People had lost their wives, their husbands, their grandchildren. I felt like crying but I didn’t, because at that point of time I had to be the strongest.

For the first week I provided medical help. After that I asked my friends to help me out. Our group kept getting bigger, and we then started supplying people with food and rations. Initially, we helped out in the Kathmandu valley. We then went to the remote villages. All around, we saw people traumatised and scared. We made it a point to tell them stories and jokes, and try to make them laugh. The people needed motivation and hope. We distributed aid in Sindhupalchok, Harisiddhi, Bungamati, Gorkha, Godavari, Makwanpur and Nagarkot. We went to so many places that we had earlier not even heard of. Now we know the places and the people too. Our work went on till July. We also made temporary shelters of bamboo and tin roofs that we hope will sustain them at least for two years.

Seeing the gratitude and the smiles on people’s faces when we approached them was the most beautiful feeling. I didn’t know that volunteering would help me so much as an individual. It gave me inner peace and happiness. I felt blessed because they told me, “God bless you”.

Paramita Rana,  Kathmandu | Interview: Namita Rao

 

‘Against all odds, people discovered new and ingenious ways to survive tragedies’

Preeti A Karna

Preeti A Karna. Photo: Pallavi Payal

It was a truly remarkable year for Nepal. It was remarkable in the tragedies that held us captive for most of the year but also remarkable in teaching us to cope with multiple disasters. The resilience shown by the people of Nepal in the face of natural and political disasters deserve historical remembrance.

Already stumbling from one political impasse to another in the process of a peaceful transition, Nepal was brought to a standstill after the earthquake. Life was threatened with constant aftershocks, and the people were suffering from the loss of almost 9,000 people. In an unprecedented way, the people of Nepal, and especially youths, rose and joined hands to help in every way possible.

In the midst of it all, the Constituent Assembly rushed through a constitution, reasoning that it was important to get that done before focusing its full energy and resources on rehabilitating earthquake survivors, even though a large section of the population was protesting against it. The logic behind this decision is a different story, but the promulgation of the new constitution led to another political disaster that has affected all parts of the country. The state’s apathy and brutal suppression of the protests by the security forces resulted in more than 50 deaths, including policemen, and led to an economic blockade as well as a highly polarised political climate.

While the new coalition government is busy expanding its cabinet and breaking/forming new ministries, the people of Nepal are learning to cope. They are coping with the human loss from both the earthquake and the political crisis, with scarcities of devastating proportions, with the state’s apathy and the ordeals that winter brings in the earthquake-affected areas with no reconstruction or rehabilitation promised to them.

It was a particularly revealing year for me as well. I’ve learnt that, against all odds, people in this country discover new and ingenious ways to survive tragedies and that it is important to do so. I’ve also learnt that, in a country like mine, it will be a long time before the people are respected and served by their representatives.

But there is always hope, and one needs to keep constant vigil over it. Most of all, I’ve learnt that there is immense power in humans to overcome pain, even though it is most often hidden underneath all that despair. Here’s hoping 2016 will be a year of rehabilitation, bridging gaps and keeping promises in Nepal.

Preeti A. Karna | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University

 

‘All around I saw bodies being carried’

Dorjee Tsering. Photo: Namita Rao

Dorjee Tsering. Photo: Namita Rao

Our building was shaking for more than 40 seconds and we felt we would die for sure. I instantly hugged my mother as I wished to die in her arms. While it was still shaking, we gathered all our strength and rushed downstairs into an open space. After an hour I went to see Dharahara, a very tall tower in the central part of the city, along with my cousin. Somebody had told me that it had fallen down and I wanted to see the extent of the damage for myself. All around I saw bodies being carried and heard a lot of crying. The whole of Kathmandu was in dust in a matter of minutes. After witnessing all of this, I feel like I am living a new life. God gave me one more chance and in this new life I am going to be a happier person.

Dorjee Tsering, Boudha | Interview: Namita Rao

 

‘Despite the long night, a spark of hope is always there’

Ashma Gautam

Ashma Gautam. Photo: Shristi Shrestha

While taking the first step towards 2016, I realise a long year has gone by. Keeping 2015 in a balance of good and bad results in equilibrium. After all, amid day and night, there is life.

My tragic 2015 started with me bidding farewell. The worst thing that happened in early 2015 was losing the senior-most member of the family. In April 2015, eastern Nepal was hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, claiming the lives of around 9,000 people and affecting the life of hundreds of thousands, and affecting the economy of the country. Despite the pain of losing thousands of known and unknown faces in the disaster, the best thing that happened is to belong to the mass of people who witnessed and survived this major earthquake.

The drafting of the constitution then acted as the catalyst for the turmoil in southern Nepal. While a group of people were busy celebrating the completion of the constitution of Nepal with firecrackers — finally, after a 10 year civil war and 10 more years of political instability — Tarai, an equally important region of Nepal, was burning with bullets and floods of blood. This was then followed by an embargo at the Nepal-India border, dropping the economic growth of the country and causing the crisis of petroleum products, cooking gas, day-to-day goods and materials for reconstruction.

As the social, political and economic condition of a country is responsible to set one’s personal life, my life in 2015 revolved around the natural and political disaster. Despite the long night, somewhere, a spark of hope, though hidden, is always there. We can still hope to rise from the rubble, to find the common points and then be at peace.

Ashma Gautam | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University

 

‘Waiting for others for our wants and desires cannot hold us back’

Raju Tamang in Bahrabise, Sindupalchok

Raju Tamang. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

I was working in the Tatopani village in Sindhupalchok. My friend and me were on our way to have lunch. Suddenly the earthquake struck the area. Our legs were shaking and we could not control our bodies. Many tourists and other people were running around, searching for a way to support themselves. Then there was a huge landslide. A stone fell from the hill and hit my friend on the head. He was dead on the spot. He left us before he could say anything. We ran to an open place called Chauki Danda in Tatopani, where 50 to 60 of us went without food for three or four days. The road was totally blocked, so I could not return back to my home and family.

I pray that day won’t repeat again. I will continue my work and secure my future after the disaster. Always waiting for others for our wants and desires cannot hold us back. My family and me are ready to work hard and sweat to forget the pain of this disaster.

Raju Tamang, Bahrabise | Interview: Unnat Sapkota

 

‘Due to heavy work and intolerable exertion, I became severely ill’

Ram Hari Adhikari and Suresh Kumar Sarma

Ram Hari Adhikari (left) and Suresh Kumar Sarma (right). Photo: Patrick Ward

The year 2015 was a bitter experience in my life. It gave me pain and sorrow. Not only for me — the whole community did not have a happy ending to the year, either.

For me, it was not a happy year, as I became sick after involving myself in earthquake relief. I was one of the victims of the earthquake. My house in the country got damaged and became uninhabitable. I also felt very horrible aftershocks in Kathmandu. I saw thousands of people suffering from pain, hostility, hunger and insecurity. I realised my responsibility in helping the victims, and moved to the epicentre district, Gorkha, on the day following the earthquake, with a team of 30 people, including my staff and volunteers. After contributing a lot in Gorkha by providing emergency shelter to 8,000 households, I went to Nuwakot after the second biggest shock on 12 May.

Maybe due to heavy work and intolerable exertion for almost a month, I became severely ill with diabetes and high blood pressure, and my kidneys were severely damaged. I had to stay in hospital for 15 days and had to leave all of my team members who were in the field.

I again joined a relief team in Sindhupakchok once I felt quite better. Now, we had to face the blockade by India which resulted in the fuel crisis. Our emergency relief work was severely hampered. However, we achieved getting a new constitution, and hope that it will help us in showing the way towards a peaceful society with progress and prosperity.

All Nepali people, including me, hope that 2016 will help us heal the terrible wounds of the earthquake and the blockade by India. We hope that the relationship between Nepal and India will normalise again, and we will be able to focus on implementing the newly produced constitution. Moreover, we will be able to speed up reconstruction activities in the earthquake affected areas of Nepal.

On a personal note, I hope to be healthier and stronger again, and that I will be able to contribute to society more in the new year.

Ram Hari Adhikari | Relief worker, Kathmandu

 

‘Power struggles have made the country weaker and weaker’

Last year gave us two different experiences. Pleasure, as we achieved our constitution, but also the trauma of the earthquake. We lost thousands of people within few minutes. Lots of structures were damaged and destroyed. Now, Nepal faces a blockade from India. But the Indian government is blaming it on the internal problems of Nepal.

Over the past two decades, Nepal has faced the challenges of political instability. Power struggles have made the country weaker and weaker. Different -isms and ideologies made national identity more confusing. In a nut shell, over the year we felt different dimensions of life, crisis and consciousness, horror and harmony, sympathy and strength.

Suresh Subedi | Journalist, Kathmandu

 

‘I sometimes look at the house where she was buried, and can’t stop my tears’

Seti Lamichhane stands in the ruins of her house in Kahvresthali

Seti Lamichhane. Photo: Patrick Ward

I was on my way to cut grass for our cows when the earthquake happened. The earth began moving violently and trees were swinging about heavily .

I found one of my grandsons half-buried in the rubble of our house. We rescued him with the help of the neighbours. My son and other family members were all there. Our house was completely destroyed. All our food and clothes were buried under rubble. But we couldn’t do anything. We just looked at it and cried.

Now we live in shelter of zinc sheets. It is so cold. It’s winter season and we don’t have proper clothes or , enough food. I’m very much concerned for my grandchildren. There would be no reason to me to live if my grandchildren had died in that earthquake. They are my everything.

On the day of the earthquake, my friend and I had gone to cut grass. She went home to get some rope and I was waiting for her by the side of the road. She never came back. She got buried when her house came down. I lost my best friend. She was like my sister. We grew up together from childhood. I sometimes look at the house where she was buried, and I can’t stop my tears.

After the earthquake, I did not eat for three days. I got sick for more than a month. But we have to continue with our lives. My children and grandchildren are helping me to overcome. I think that wherever my friend is, she must be happy, because I believe that she is with god. I try to bear it because I know her memory will never die. No one can part me from it.

Seti Lamichhane, Kavresthali | Interview: Enika Rai

 

‘We are forgetting the lessons we learnt from the quake’

Unnat Sapkota

Unnat Sapkota. Photo: Enika Rai

Looking back is still painful. Every day seems terrifying. Remembering 25 April is hard. The lessons that we learnt were more than the pages of any text book.

That day I was at my cousin’s home, in Basundhara, Kathmandu. It was Saturday, our day off, and my mind was eagerly demanding fun. After having lunch, five or six family members were having a discussion. Some others were busy watching TV. Suddenly, everything started shaking. We knew it was an earthquake, and we searched for the miraculous chance to escape from the house.

When we reached the door, the magnitude was so heavy that we were struggling to stay upright. A motorbike fell down right ahead of us and blocked the way. One of us managed to push it away and we reached the open space. A girl, around 13 or 14, was crying and shouting for help from the terrace of the same house. We knew she had lost the key and was stuck. Me and my elder brother did our best to break the lock of the door. We rescued her, despite big aftershocks.

We are forgetting the lessons that we learnt from the quake, like it was nothing to us. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was built after eight months, and the CEO of the NRA was appointed in the last week of December. It’s winter season, and the government decided to give $100 to earthquake victims to protect themselves from the cold. But the distribution has not been effective. When will reconstruction end? When will people live their lives as before? When will these decades of political instability end? When will we be citizens of a prosperous nation?

There is a saying, “Don’t lose your hope until you breathe the last.” It may take time, but we will live our lives as we used to on 24 April.

Unnat Sapkota | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University

In quake-hit Kathmandu, a Tibetan community fights an unequal battle

“I never expected this building to be so dangerous,” said Tenzin Paljor (above). Standing in the crumbled remains of a weaving hall, the secretary of the Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre looks dejected. The centre, which has played a pivotal role in the lives of the Tibetan refugees living next to it, is now unusable.

“We called four or five engineers to check the building,” he said. “Each one of them said that it needs to be demolished. The irony is that it is too expensive to even demolish this building.”

We had stumbled upon the centre walking through Kathmandu in an effort to avoid travelling on the overcrowded buses. Rows of Tibetan prayer flags billowing in the breeze told us there was a Tibetan settlement close by. On entering a large compound, we realised we had walked straight into the centre we had read about before coming to Nepal. From the outside, despite the deep cracks creeping across the walls, the building appeared intact. But once you entered, the scene changed.

Pillars of the building that sunk a few inches into the ground.

Pillars of the building have sunk into the ground. Photo: Namita Rao

The main centre, which used to be thrumming with industrious Tibetan weavers, is now a striking reflection of the devastation caused by the quake. Our footsteps echoed in the deserted building. Rows and rows of broken pillars greeted us, many of which had sunk into the ground. Everywhere we look, we could see red brickwork under exposed patches of plaster—some bricks missing, others surrounded by webs of cracks. The remnants of the thriving weaving hall could be seen in the forms of tattered yarn, balls of threads lying here and there, and tall weaving machines, now abandoned.

“It was fortunate that the earthquake was on Saturday,” said Paljor. “If it had been a working day, a huge loss of lives might have occurred.”

Outside, we met Choezin, a store manager who has been working at the centre for more than 15 years. She recalled the first time she saw the centre after the earthquake. “Those two months, living in the tents pitched on our football ground, and then coming back to the weaving centre to see it broken down, felt like being in a nightmare I had not woken up from,” she said.

Choezin lives in the refugee settlement next to the centre, which is home to around 780 first- and second-generation Tibetans. In 1959, around 30,000 Tibetans fled to India, Nepal and Bhutan along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, following the Chinese occupation in Tibet. This meant that the Tibetans had to start their lives all over again in a new land.

JHC staff

These store managers have been working for more than 15 years at the handicraft centre. Photo: Ritu Panchal

“The first 300 to 400 Tibetans who arrived in Nepal by 1960 lived in the Jawalakhel camp, which was funded by foreign aid and relief programmes,” said Paljor. “In 1961, with the help of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the International Red Cross Society, we built the Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre.” The centre allowed the Tibetans to retain their identity and culture, and served as an economic avenue to sustain the community organically.

The carpet business was a big success. The JHC introduced this unique craft to Nepal and it also became famous elsewhere in the world. As Paljor showed us around the camp, he told us that the weaving has always been exclusive and of top quality, with products ranging from 60 and 100 knots carpets, shawls, pashminas and handicraft items. For decades now, the centre has been weaving exquisite carpets using time-honoured Tibetan designs as well as fresh contemporary patterns. The intricate carpets come in dark hues, muted pastels, earthy ochres and enduring neutrals adorned with traditional iconography like the endless knot, mandalas and the Tibetan landscape.

“But for the last four years the business hasn’t been very good,” said Thupten Dolma, another store manager. “There are too many new carpet stores and factories in the same area which are run by single families. Their carpets are cheaper as they use lower quality material. The profit they make sustains only one family. On the other hand, the JHC makes the best quality carpets which are invariably more expensive as they have to sustain an entire community of 200 Tibetan families.”

Despite the economic crunch faced by the centre in the recent years, it provides free education to the children, a kindergarten for the younger kids, support to the elderly people and handicapped, and medical assistance and housing to those who do not have homes.

Photo of weaving hall at Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre

After the quake destructed the weaving hall, workers have had to move to this cramped storage room. Photo: Namita Rao

Due to the destruction of the weaving hall, the weavers have had to move to an old, cramped storage room to carry out their work. “Work has become slow and has totally changed,” said Dolma. “They have to take more tea and water breaks to cool down and their faces become very red. The old hall was big with a lot of space to move around. Despite that, we are happy to work and be busy.”

There are now 60 women weavers along with administrative staff, store managers, salesmen, and packaging units at the centre. Even though the centre was not functional for two-and-a-half months, it still paid minimum wages to the workers during that time. According to their estimates, it will take three to four months just to demolish the buildings and around NPR 90 million (around £560,000) to rebuild it. The thought of raising this amount is an overwhelming one, especially as the community has little means of raising funds to cover the entire cost, given their status in the country.

While the Nepalese government treated Tibetans who arrived in Nepal before 1989 as refugees, those who arrived more recently have no legal status here. They cannot own property, be legally employed, pursue higher education, carry a refugee card, or have a passport. Because of its economic dependency on China, Nepal has come under political pressure from Beijing to restrain Tibetan activity—which has placed a huge humanitarian and economic burden on this community. After the earthquake, and with no legal status, Tibetans are not ‘eligible’ for any compensation—nor have they received any from the government. In such a scenario, it is next to impossible for the centre to raise funds on its own. Paljor said all they have managed so far are a few private donations of small amounts.

“It is a very hard time for us right now,” he said. “But I am hopeful that some way will come out.”

The Village That Lives On Hope

“Every house in our village collapsed during the earthquake,” said Ram Sharan Parajuli. “It’s a miracle no one died.” We were standing at the spot where his home used to be, now reduced to mounds of stones and piles of wooden beams. “There used to be four houses here, but now it is all gone.”

The 24-year-old physics student had travelled from Kathmandu to his home for Dashain, the longest and most auspicious festival on the Nepali calendar. This year, along with the other villagers of Chimling Beshi, he was celebrating it in a temporary shelter. It seemed a bittersweet coincidence that Dashain – which celebrates the victory of good over evil – overlapped with the six month anniversary of the worst natural disaster to hit Nepal in 80 years.

We had set out for Sindhupalchok earlier that day on a bus packed with men, women and children wearing their best clothes, foreheads adorned with red tikas, on their way to visit relatives. Our overloaded bus climbed into the hills, swinging perilously around the corners of the twisting roads. The road journey felt dangerous, but when you look at the small, fragile houses on the hillside, many of them partially or completely destroyed, you realise that precariousness is a part of everyday life in this part of Nepal.

Chimling Beshi is one of many villages in Sindhupalchok district that was destroyed by the earthquake in April. Every house suffered severe damage and was rendered uninhabitable. The district suffered more devastation than any other, with around 3,500 deaths and nearly 64,000 houses – around 90 per cent –listed as ‘fully damaged’. The village is part of Mankha, the second most badly affected Village Development Committee in the district, where more than 7,500 people required immediate assistance after the earthquake. Six months after the earthquake, we were on our way to spend the night in the village, to see how life had changed for its inhabitants since the disaster.

Chimling Beshi

This is the new settlement of Chimling Beshi. All the houses in this village were damaged in the earthquake. Photo: Ritu Panchal

AFTER WE CLIMBED a steep path from the nearby town of Khadichaur, rows of glinting metal roofs peeking out of lush foliage came into view. The small shacks were built by the villagers within a week of the earthquake, using materials salvaged from their ruined houses and bamboo from the forest.

“After the earthquake, the rainy season started and people were scared of landslides,” said Ram, as we navigated a steep path. “It was very hot and we had to carry large tin sheets two at a time from our old house.”

Below the six rows of tin houses stood three temporary school buildings for the younger children, built by NGOs shortly after the earthquake. Other than 25 kg of rice per household and some tin sheets, the villagers received little in the way of relief goods. It was difficult not to feel a sense of sadness at what had happened to this community. And yet, Chimling Beshi was full of life. Children were playing cards, elders were placing tikas onto the foreheads of their younger relatives, and the villagers had built a giant swing (called ping in Nepali) for Dashain.

But the scene was very different at the site of the old village, which stood a short trek away, on an adjacent hill. Within six months, the jungle had consumed what remained of the village. The trails were hidden under a blanket of moss and grass, and creepers and wild flowers grew on the broken walls of what used to be houses. It was hard to imagine that the same place was a thriving, sustainable community, and that these ruins used to be homes, which echoed with laughter. Babies were born here, elders had died here – but now nothing remained except for the ghost of a settlement.

Foliage grows out of the remains of a house.

In six months, nature has taken over the remains of the houses at the former site of the village of Chimling Beshi. Photo: Ritu Panchal

We clambered over rocks that had plunged down the hillside to reach four families who had decided to build temporary shelters next to the remains of their houses, rather than move. Weren’t they afraid of landslides?

“During the rainy season, I can’t sleep,” said Saraswoti Poudel. “But we didn’t want to leave our animals and our land.”

Their biggest concern was having better shelter, which was too costly for them to build on their own. The yearning for a proper home would become a familiar tale that we would hear again and again during our stay.

It was beginning to get dark as we made the hike back to the new village. That evening, Radha, Ram’s mother, prepared a meal of lentils, rice and potatoes for us, all gathered from the farmland. Subsistence farming has become more difficult since the family moved to the new location, as they now have to walk further to gather food from their land, which lies near their old home.

As we ate our meal outside the shelter, we began to shiver. The day and night time temperatures in Nepal fluctuate considerably. Earlier on, it had been searingly hot; but now, there was a harsh chill. We could only imagine how cold it might get in the winter, which was fast approaching. The tin sheets would provide little insulation to the villagers.

Inside the shelter, two chipped but sturdy double beds occupied most of the space, in addition to two cupboards and a dresser. A line of colourful clothes were hung up across one wall. We slept that night in thick blankets provided by our host, the blare of TV sets from the adjacent houses clearly audible.

THE NEXT MORNING, we woke early to the sounds of a village beginning to stir. The clatter of pots and pans, the clamour from the radio, and the smell of burning charcoal filled the air. We could see villagers occupied with their morning chores. Several of them were making their way down the tapering trail, towards their old settlement to tend to their land and animals, to pick vegetables. Many were making multiple trips to carry water home from a remote tap<

“We are compromising on even our basic needs,” said Nikesh Parajuli. “So building a house is a distant dream.” The 16-year-old’s biggest concern was that he found it difficult to study: being in cramped clusters, the settlement offered little space and he found it difficult to concentrate amidst all the noise. “I don’t even dare to hope for that here,” he said.

Nikesh Parajuli

Nikesh Parajuli, a high school student, finds it difficult to find time or space to study in the temporary shelter. Photo: Naomi Mihara

Many villagers were hoping that their situation would be resolved soon. “For the time being, we don’t mind living here because it’s just temporary,” said Subash Battarai, a 21-year-old student, who had returned home for the festival>

How could they be sure, we wondered? “Hope is everything,” said Ram, simply.

Despite six months having passed, the villagers have no choice but to hold onto the promise made by the government back in April, of 200,000 Rs (around

When we broached the topic of politics, the sense of frustration was palpable. So far, households have only received 15,000 Rs (£95), a tiny fraction of the cost of rebuilding a house. One resident, Madan Krishna Adhikari, told us he had already spent that amount clearing the rubble of his old house.

“The government is not taking our problems seriously,” he said. “Even the plans of the earthquake-proof houses they proposed have not been released yet.” His biggest needs were getting basic construction materials, such as cement and iron rods, and the capital needed to build the house, he said.

Bal Kumari Parajuli and her granddaughter, Dikshika, who now lives in Kathmandu with her parents

Balkumari Parajuli and her granddaughter, Dikshika, who now lives in Kathmandu with her parents. Photo: Naomi Mihara

As we walked past the remains of another house, a sudden jolt shook the ground. A small girl ran past us into the arms of her grandmother, who had just emerged from a tin shack next to the rubble. It was the first time we had felt an aftershock in Nepal. But they occur frequently in this part, the villagers told us, providing a constant reminder that the next earthquake could happen anytime.

The elderly woman, Bal Kumari Parajuli, told us that before the earthquake her whole family had lived together in the house. But her son and daughter-in-law had decided to move with their young children to Kathmandu shortly afterwards. The children have returned to celebrate Dashain. But the earthquake and the destruction of her family home have traumatised Bal Kumari.Every morning she wakes up to the sight of her broken house, which is a perpetual reminder of what happened.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “I miss my family and I am still worried about earthquakes.”

Like so many villages in Nepal, Chimling Beshi is a community in limbo, waiting for help that may or may not arrive so that they can rebuild their homes. Normality has been disrupted, but even these circumstances have become normal for the villagers now.

“Earthquakes come and go,” said Anant Kumari Adhikari, who allowed the other villagers to build their shelters on her land. “It has become like a habit.”

‘Nepal has never undertaken something of this magnitude’

The reconstruction of Nepal following the earthquake is a mammoth task, and one of the government’s initial responses was the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), co-led by senior government policymaker Dr Swarnim Wagle. This document, produced over a matter of weeks and presented at the international donor conference on June 25, gave a detailed account of the damage to the various sectors of Nepal’s society, and action plans for the future, setting out how reconstruction, economic reform and planning for further disasters should take shape. One of its recommendations was for the establishment of a National Authority for Reconstruction to oversee the recovery. The NAR is yet to be formally adopted by parliament, and its CEO, Govind Raj Pokharel, was only appointed by then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in mid-August. Dr Wagle, a member of the National Planning Commission, spoke with Patrick Ward about the PDNA, the problems of recovery, and the future challenges for Nepal.

How would you say the progress of the recovery is going since you published the Post Disaster Needs Assessment in June?

The National Planning Commission (NPC) was very active for the first two months. I don’t think the government of Nepal has ever undertaken something of this magnitude. It coordinated nearly 500 experts, almost 30 development partners, under the leadership of the government ministries. We organised all these experts in 23 groups and we managed to get something useful, something coherent, in the form of the PDNA in three to four weeks.

The big question we were asked was, even through a regular budget system, you’re not able to spend all your money. We probably spend only 80 per cent of the government department budget in a year. There are lots of hurdles, procurement bottlenecks. It’s a separate issue; we need to fix it over time. But the question we got was, if you are going to use the same machinery to do reconstruction, and you’re pumping in billions of additional dollars, how can you assure us money will actually be spent?

So we had to design an alternative system to assure our development partners that we’ll do things differently. So the design of the extraordinary mechanism, which took the form of the National Authority for Reconstruction, was also done by the NPC. So those were the things we were tasked to do and we delivered. Unfortunately, the NPC is basically an advisory board. We are not an executive or implementing body. After that, I admit that there has been a bit of a slowdown in momentum, because it essentially became a political decision. So we were a bit disappointed in the time it took for Prime Minister Koirala to make up his mind. But it is also a very fluid political situation. You can’t afford to alienate any political party. He could have just gone ahead and appointed a CEO, but that CEO would not be credible or strong if there wasn’t sufficient buy-in by other political parties. So I think he took his time to make sure whoever he appointed would also be supported by other political parties. That ended up taking a lot of time, and that affected at least the perception that the reconstruction hadn’t picked up.

The other hiccup has been the ordinance that created the NAR, which should have been converted into an act of parliament within 60 days. Because the country was so focused on the constitution, and given the problems in the Terai and Kailali [where protests and strikes for constitutional rights are on], I think it’s just slipped the calendar scheduling. The government did its part and everything was sent to the parliament. But I think somewhere in the calendar of the parliament itself it slipped, and so the 60-day window was missed.

So the international aid money still has not been transferred to the NAR because of this?

Well, that’s half true and half false. The pledging was about $4 bn. That was just a pledge. The pledges now need to be converted into concrete projects. [Some of the] donors are in the business of development in a professional manner, such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. They were very quick. They have converted their pledges to concrete projects already. The World Bank has a massive housing project that has already been signed by the Ministry of Finance. In the Ministry of Finance there’s a foreign aid coordination division, the International Economic Cooperation Coordination Department. The joint secretary is Mr Madhu Marasini. So he’s been talking with all sorts of donors over the last two, three months. World Bank has already been signed. ADB has a big project on education that has already been signed, I think. And they want to do more.

But it takes time. For the Chinese, for example, they’re in the diplomatic business, right? They’re not used to doing development. Even India, which was the largest contributor, they don’t do traditional development like the World Bank does. So they would need to get things going with the help of professionals, that they might bring or they might hire locally, to convert their commitments into concrete projects. That might take time, but that will happen in a sequenced manner.

But the fact that we’ll have a functioning NAR will definitely help. The final signing will happen at the Ministry of Finance, but on the substance—is housing a priority, or education a priority?—on those issues it would have helped the donors to be able to do a substantive dialogue with the Authority. The issue is, it’s not like the relief-rescue phase, where you just disperse the cash. You have to adapt a more thoughtful process, bring in all the institutional checks and balances, modes of accountability and transparency. This is going to be multi-year—up to five years—so it’s going to be big. But the process has begun, it’s not that because the Authority has not hit the ground running, everything is at a standstill. That’s not the case at all.

An earthquake damaged school in Harisiddhi

This school in Harisiddhi is still in use, but has serious structural damage, months after the quake. Future-proofing new buildings is a major part of plans for reconstruction. Photo: Patrick Ward

Another earthquake is expected sometime in the future. Are you confident that after these five years, or however long it takes, Nepal will be prepared for that?

Absolutely, that’s the core principle. The NPC has already come up with a reconstruction policy and from now on all the houses that will be rebuilt—hundreds of thousands of houses—will all have to be earthquake resistant. And not just earthquake resistant, we are already mindful of other hazards that Nepal is prone to. Landslides, you really can’t protect against unless you move the settlement itself, but fires and other hazards that Nepal is prone to. I think that those things will be taken care of in the new housing designs that will be endorsed and supported by the Authority.

The last disaster of this magnitude was 80 years ago. You can see that even between April 25th and May 12th, the two big earthquakes, I think the government was much better prepared after May 12th in terms of communicating with the public and getting the news out. April 25th did come as a shock. People knew the earthquake was coming, but unless you know the particular date—what the Americans call “actionable intelligence”—there was no actionable intelligence. The Americans knew some kind of terrorist attack would happen of the kind that happened on 9/11, but if you didn’t know it was going to happen on 9/11 there was very little you could do.

But I think Nepal has been jolted. We lived through it, we felt the minute-long vibrations, which was terrifying. So I think there is definitely going to be better preparation, but things that need to be done institutionally—a disaster management authority, the earthquake preparedness—that needs to be internalised in school curricular. The drills that you need to do, the large amount of training that we need to do, for the police and the army, right now it’s happening in piecemeal and much smaller scale. But now we have to take on this challenge in a more routinised, institutionalised manner, and I think that awakening is there now.

Several of the aid agencies we have spoken to have said that while the government and authorities here did offer facilitation and assistance to their work, they had some obstacles with the bureaucracy involved, and with the need to pay taxes and import duties on relief supplies coming into Nepal. What do you know about that?

There was an issue during the relief and rescue phase, in the first few months. There were some issues over whether some consignments were eligible for duty waivers. The first thing to note is that it would have been very difficult for the government to just say, OK, free for all then, just come in. So it was necessary to put in place certain guidelines. That’s what the Ministry of Finance did.

“You don’t show up in a sovereign country and expect a red carpet treatment and say ‘no questions asked’”

Problems were exaggerated as well I think, because there’s a 2007 convention on humanitarian assistance. If NGOs, the big ones, whose whole existence is to do humanitarian work, charity work, if they had registered their name within this framework, those guys would not have been affected at all. So they could have brought in whatever relief material they could, duty free. For others, there was a guideline put in place to declare, what have you brought? Where do you intend to go with it? The basic questions. You don’t show up in a sovereign country and expect a red carpet treatment and say ‘no questions asked’.

Even when certain basic guidelines were put in place there was a lot of abuse. We saw people were already importing commercial merchandise as humanitarian goods—big companies—and in Nepal the revenue need is very high. So for six weeks, seven weeks, it was completely relaxed. All you had to do was declare and then schedule things through. But the kind of requests we were getting from other development partners to make all the relief works free of taxes, that wouldn’t have been tenable to the system for a long time.  It’s easy to be sentimentally driven—oh, it’s a humanitarian crisis!—but those guys aren’t the custodians of the nation’s treasury.

You mention in the PDNA the need for economic reforms—what do you mean by that, and is there the political will to undertake them?

There’s political support, of course. There’s second generation reform we need to do. In the early-1990s the big opening-up happened, but now we need to do more on the regulatory front. So we have given sufficient space to the market. An efficient well-functioning market economy also needs supervision and regulation of the government, and we’ve been lacking on that. A lot of perversions in the system, car tailing and syndicates, I think those things have to be taken care of in the next phase of reforms, but this has to be supported by a stable political regime.

The other thing on the economic front is really when we’re looking at reconstruction. There are five concrete building blocks. First is, of course, to rebuild private houses, community assets. Second is to focus on the infrastructure, physical and social infrastructure. The third is we need a distinct agenda for our heritage sites and heritage settlements, because people perceive reconstruction as just rebuilding physical things. So the first three are somehow physical, getting things back up, but we don’t want to ignore the social and economic agenda. It’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently and to use reconstruction as a source of capital formation that will pave the way for future growth, not just urban areas. If you look at the ethno-geography of the crisis, certain communities have been hit particularly badly. If you look at the geography, this is often almost the Himalayan belt. It’s not immediately accessible. You have to walk, it’s a difficult terrain. I think the issue of vulnerability and livelihoods, getting livelihoods going, is very important. We need a distinct programme on that, so I hope the Authority will bring programmes of that nature as well. So it’s not just physical reconstruction.

The fifth one we’re looking at is really economic revival. We want rural centres. So issues of integrated settlements, clustering, not just in isolation but one rural cluster interconnected with another rural cluster. They can become rural centres of growth. Right now, we write off the rural areas. We say they can’t be dynamic sources of economic growth, it’s just paddy production or wheat production, agricultural. But I think there’s enough, if we envision it right, to really plan these things. These rural centres, once the resettlement happens, once the clustering happens, and once the planning of the provisioning of the amenities happen around those integrated, more efficient settlements, I think they really can become semi-urban areas as a source of growth themselves.

But to support that at the national level, the second generation reforms have to be pursued, and the work on that is going on. There are almost 40 pieces of legislation at different stages of maturity. Some are already in the parliament, some policies have already been cleared by the cabinet, but in a democracy it’s a lot of back and forth. NPC has to give some consent, the Ministry of Law has to look at the legal implications, the Ministry of Finance has to look at the financial implications. So there are lots of things flying in the air but at different stages. If we were a less democratic country, we could just announce these things in a second, second generation reforms, big bang, here are the things that will come into operation tomorrow. But that’s not the luxury we have. This is the proper way to do it, to make sure all the perspectives are incorporated.

This is partly related to reconstruction. But even without the crisis, without the disaster, this is something we should be doing anyway. We were delayed by the decade-long conflict and now we are finally back on track with a new constitution in place, I hope. People can finally focus on the economic agenda and support that higher ambition of putting Nepal on a higher trajectory of growth. You need to undergird that with the second generation reforms. It’s overdue now.

Earthquake survivors face dangerous winter as Nepal relief runs out of fuel

Submerged in the political wrangling over its new constitution and the furore surrounding the fuel shortage in Nepal lies an imminent, far severe crisis for the thousands of earthquake survivors living in the higher reaches of the Himalayan nation.

Winter is coming and they have no real shelter.

“We are in a race against time to reach 84,000 people with vital supplies before snow sets in,” says Iolanda Jacquemet of the World Food Programme, which leads the United Nations Logistics Cluster, the agency responsible for coordinating relief operations in the country. “Earthquake-affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world in about 3-4 weeks.”

In the last fortnight, across Nepal, earthquake relief has suffered severely. Protests by ethnic groups in the Tarai region near the Indian border over their underrepresentation in Nepal’s newly enacted constitution resulted in a pile-up of supply trucks from India, leading to a severe fuel shortage in the country. The Dashain festival, when most Nepalis travel home to celebrate with families, began yesterday, and has accentuated the need for mobility, placing further pressure on the already squeezed resources available for relief work.

“We have used the last drop of diesel available to distribute food,” says Jacquemet. “Fuel for choppers will expire in one week. We are 30 per cent late on our distributions as of today.”

The situation is particularly serious for those in the hilly, remote areas of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok, where temperatures dip to below zero. Supplies can only reach these communities through a combination of off-road vehicles, porters and mules. WFP has one month’s worth of food relief supplies ready on the ground. But the lack of diesel has meant distributions to some 224,000 people have been severely disrupted, says Jacquemet.

Lily Thapa, Women's Human Rights

Women for Human Rights founder Lily Thapa is concerned her organisation will not be able to finish distributing supplies before the winter sets in. Photo: Patrick Ward

Survivors face the prospect of a winter in open tents in the lower reaches as well. Sudarshan Shrestha from Save the Children spoke of how his organisation had promised goods and supplies to several communities before Dashain, and how that commitment could not be kept. If relief work does not pick up momentum quickly, he says, “we could could end up with a double humanitarian crisis”.

In Chhoprak, a remote village in the Gorkha district, where 1,504 of the 1,531 houses were destroyed by the earthquake, the Nepali NGO Women for Human Rights faces a similar, broken promise. Most households live in temporary shelters without proper windows or doors, and WHR is concerned that supplies such as solar lights, winter clothes and blankets will not get dispersed in time.

“We have distributed 8,000 items over the past two months,” says WHR founder Lily Thapa. “We still have 10,000 more to distribute.”

The fuel crisis has also pushed up the cost of distributing relief for NGOs. “Usually the private vehicles we hire to take goods from Kathmandu to Gorkha cost around NPR 22,000 [approximately £138],” says Bisheshta Shrestha, an aid worker at WHR. “That has doubled right now. Local transport in Gorkha is even more expensive.”

Further, NGOs face the prospect of losing donor support if they do not meet agreed objectives. “If you don’t finish your work within the deadline, you have to find another funding source,” says Ram Hari Adhikari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. “It’s the same story for all the NGOs.”

Adhikari works in Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, building community toilets and hygiene facilities. That work has been hampered by the unavailability of cement, sand, and other construction materials. In addition, the fuel crisis has had severe economic and social impacts on the communities in the district.

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

“Many people working in the transportation industry are jobless at the moment. Those selling goods which come from India, like milk and vegetables, are also suffering,” Adhikari says. “After the earthquake, schools closed for two months. Now, schools have been disrupted again, so children can’t finish their courses this academic year.”

In the southern plains of the Tarai region too, NGOs are facing issues. Relief has been disrupted by the turbulence caused by the Madhesi and Tharu protesters calling for amendments to Nepal’s new constitution. An EU delegation to Nepal last week issued a statement expressing concern about the effects of the current situation on “the poorest segments of the population, including in the Tarai”. General strikes have crippled everyday life in the Tarai for the past few months; curfews were imposed and many schools suspended classes.

In the past weeks we’ve had to temporarily close operations in six districts, in the interests of the safety of our staff,” says Sudarshan Shrestha. The Nepal Red Cross faced several incidents of vandalism. In one incident, an ambulance was set on fire and an injured patient killed.

The UN Logistics Cluster has now requested the government for priority access to fuel. But Rameshwar Dangal, head of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Disaster Management Division, is doubtful it will be approved immediately.

“We have a huge crisis due to Dashain,” he says. “I think the government will prioritise providing fuel to public transport and private vehicles.”

At this point, like the rest of the nation, aid agencies can only wait for the situation to improve. But time is running out fast. “Even if the situation improved tomorrow,” says Sudarshan Shrestha, “it would take us a week or more to get back on our feet.”

How India’s Unofficial Blockade Is Affecting Post-Earthquake Nepal

The day I arrived in Kathmandu, the Nepal government had just announced a quota system limiting the number of vehicles on the roads in response to the fuel crisis. Very few private vehicles were plying. Buses were completely packed. Taxis were charging three or four times the usual rate.

I had read about the protests taking place near the Indian border over Nepal’s new constitution even as I left England. I knew about the blockade of supply trucks at the border, and, in an abstract manner, about the fuel shortage that was beginning to grip the country. But I had little idea how much the situation was affecting everyday life across a country struggling to get on its feet after a devastating earthquake—and how angry, and upset, Nepalis were with their ‘Big Brother’ across the border.

“We are trying to put our house in order and a big neighbour has come to disturb it,” Dr Uddhab Pyakurel, a political sociologist at the Kathmandu University, was to tell me soon. “A small section of Nepali society has always been critical of India’s influence. But now, more people are feeling this way.”

India’s role in the fuel crisis has been extensively reported, and it would be difficult to find a Nepali who believes New Delhi’s claim that it was concern for the truck drivers’ safety that was behind the pile-up of supply vehicles at the border on the Indian side. Every person I spoke to in Kathmandu seemed to believe, perhaps with some justification, that India had effected an unofficial economic blockade to pressurise Nepal into editing certain provisions in its brand new constitution—specifically, those relating to the demands of the Madhesi people in the border region, with whom India shares strong cultural ties.

It is not surprising, then, that many in Kathmandu are fuming. The ordinary Nepali, says Anup Ojha, a journalist at the Kathmandu Post, feels betrayed. “We are feeling humiliated,” he said. “It shows that India can interfere in each and every part of our politics.”

It is not just the politics that people are upset about. The blockade has translated into everyday hardships for everyone here, to the point that some in Kathmandu feel it eclipses even the situation they faced after the earthquake. “This crisis is more troublesome than the earthquake,” said Munni Pandey, a mother I met in Pattan, on the outskirts of the capital city. With few taxis plying, Munni was frustrated at her inability to take her children to their schools on time; at home, she was about to run out of cooking gas.

Photo of Ramila

Ramila (right) has run out of cooking gas and is no position to cook for her family of 12. Photo: Namita Rao

Kalyan Tamang, a bus driver who had been waiting in a fuel queue all morning, was more measured in his response. People were moving on from the adversities caused by the earthquake, he said, and trying to rebuild their lives. But the fuel shortage has hit them hard. Sangam Lama, a bus conductor, put it simply:

“If the buses don’t work, I don’t get my salary.”

 

A WEEK AFTER I reached Kathmandu, there were news reports that India had instructed its officials at the border to lift the undeclared blockade. The people I spoke to that day were cautiously optimistic that an end was in sight. “We are slightly relieved,” said Surya Dhungana, “but we cannot fully rely on that because we have been facing a similar situation for the past 30 years.”

Behind the negativity colouring that sentiment is the fact that the reprieve at the border is yet to alleviate the crisis in any tangible manner. Although trucks carrying fuel and other essential goods have begun to trickle in (or so I read in the newspapers), for the ordinary Nepali, nothing has really changed yet. The quota system is still in place for public transport and government-owned vehicles, which are allowed on the roads only on alternate days. Private vehicles received a slight relief when the ban on fuel sales was lifted for just one day. But in truth, the situation appears worse than it was, with the government now slashing the fuel quota for public vehicles.

Many in Kathmandu are also concerned about the upcoming Dashain, the biggest festival of the year, which lasts 15 days. There is a sizeable population in the city from other parts of the country, and traditionally, most people return home for the festival. But with the fuel rationing in place, transportation will be difficult to find.

For more than a week, schools have been running classes only on alternate days. Without fuel for generators, which are needed to tide over the prolonged power cuts caused by Nepal’s electricity shortage problem, businesses are seriously suffering. According to the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the cumulative effects of the two months of strikes, blockades and protests over the new constitution has cost the economy $1 billion.

Commuters sit on the roof of a bus in Kathmandu during during the fuel crisis.

Commuters travelling on bus roofs are a common sight in Kathmandu. Photo: Naomi Mihara

THE CRISIS HAS also severely disrupted earthquake relief work. Much of the cement, steel, glass and zinc sheets needed for reconstruction is imported from India. “These cannot be accessed by villagers unless there is a smooth transportation facility,” said Dr Pyakurel. “More than that, earthquake-affected villages need a large number of skilled and semi-skilled workers, many of whom come from the bordering cities of India. Given the situation, Indian workers may not feel safe to come to the hilly districts to carry out reconstruction.”

The biggest hindrance to relief work is, not surprisingly, the lack of mobility. “We are in a race against time,” said Iolanda Jaquemet of the World Food Programme, which has had to halt many of its operations because its delivery trucks are out of diesel. “Earthquake affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world by snow in about 3-4 weeks.”

“It’s the same story for all NGOs,” said Ram Hari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. His organisation faces the prospect of losing donor money because they would now not be able to finish distributing relief materials to meet a mid-October deadline. This also means that vulnerable families in Sindupalchok—the district worst-affected by the earthquake, where many are still living in tents—will not get the aid they have been promised.

Importantly, the issue that has spurred the blockade and fuel crisis still remains unresolved. Talks between the government and parties representing the Madhesis—the main group protesting their under-representation in the new constitution—are taking place, and the government has agreed to some amendments. But there is still much ground to be covered.

“In the Madhesh, there is palpable anger against Kathmandu,” said Daulat Jha, a Madhesi political analyst. “Right now, the polarisation is at its peak and will take time to decrease.”

 

IN THE CAPITAL, though, there is much solidarity on display. People have grouped together on social media to voice their anger at India through hashtags such as #IndiaBlockadesNepal, #BackOffIndia and #DonateOilToIndianEmbassy. Residents have also resorted to sharing rides to get around. Carpool Kathmandu, a Facebook page to coordinate travel in and around the city, has now amassed more than 94,000 members.

“From one point of view, the situation has helped unite Nepalese people,” said Sagun Khanal, an accountant. “They are ready to help each other.”

 

Public buses queuing for petrol at Gayatri Devi petrol pump, Patan, last Thursday.

Public buses queuing up at a petrol station in Patan last Thursday. Photo: Naomi Mihara

There is also a feeling that Nepal needs to rely less on India. As of now, more than 60 per cent of Nepal’s imports are from India and this over-reliance, many in Kathmandu say, makes their country vulnerable to manipulations. They point to 1989, when India imposed an official blockade that lasted 13 months, thought to be an attempt to punish Nepal for buying weapons from China. “Our situation is probably worse now than it was in the past, because we consume so many goods that are imported from India,” a Kathmandu resident said.

There have been calls for Nepal to reach out to other neighbours, especially China. The road to the northern Tatopani border point, buried by landslides after the earthquake, was hurriedly cleared and reopened last week. Last week, the government-owned Nepal Oil Corporation issued a tender for the import of petroleum products from any country through any medium, hoping to break more than 40 years of Indian monopoly as the sole supplier.

Besides the anti-India sentiments, many Nepalis appeared increasingly frustrated with their own politicians’ lack of action, foresight and ability to negotiate diplomatically. Following the promulgation of the constitution on September 20, Nepal’s parliament is attempting to form a new government. There is a sense that this has been prioritised over reaching a solution to the crisis.

“They have behaved very immaturely and disrespectfully,” said Dr Sudhamshu Dahal, an assistant professor at the Kathmandu University. “They should start putting people at the centre of their negotiations.”

Others are angry at Madhesi politicians and protest leaders for inciting unrest, rather than negotiating. “I understand that people in the Tarai are unhappy with the constitution,” a student said. “But this is affecting everyone’s lives.” There are also many who plead the cause for unity. In Ratna Park, a group protesting India’s actions held signs referring to the three regions of Nepal: “Himal [mountain], Pahad [hill], Tarai [plains]: no one is an outsider”.

Although anti-India sentiment in Nepal is high at this point, the India-Nepal relationship is not irreparably damaged. “Many people feel doubts about whether the kind of relationship that the two countries have had until now should continue,” said Dr Pyakurel. “Still, there is room to be engaged. But India needs to undo this blockage as soon as possible and allow Nepal to deal with its domestic problems on its own.”

Thankfully, the animosity felt towards the Indian nation does not seem to extend towards the Indian people. “We share a familiar culture, landscape, lifestyle… there are so many things that can bring Nepali and Indian people together,” said blogger Siromani Dhungana. “We have shared a special bond in the past, and I believe that will continue in the future.”

Additional reportage: Namita Rao, Ritu Panchal and Unnat Sapkota.