30 Dec 2015

Christmas story main text 2

It has not been an easy year for Pokharel’s

30 Dec 2015

It has not been an easy year for Pokharel’s congregation. Sangachok falls under Sindhupalchok, the district most affected by the earthquake. Of the 8,702 people who lost their lives across Nepal in the earthquake, 3, 440 belong to Sindhupalchok. Some 90 per cent of houses in the district were either destroyed or damaged, and the scope of this devastation is remarkably evident in Sangachok. It  began the year with more than 2,000 houses, but is ending it with just 200. Around 160 people are believed to have lost their lives.

I had been elsewhere in the district, in September. At that time, on seeing the temporary shelters, tents, and the piles of rubble still being cleared, I wrote it felt like the earthquake had struck just yesterday. That shocked me then, and on my return to the district now, I was hoping the situation would have improved, at least slightly. After all, the emergency relief phase of NGO operations was long over. Nepal’s new constitution had been passed, and the new parliament had finally established the National Reconstruction Authority, the organisation entrusted with mobilising the funds promised by international donors and overseeing the rebuilding.

But as my microbus pulled into Sangachok in the morning, the effects of the earthquake were instantly apparent. A huge mound of bricks and cement lay at the side of the road. The row of shops and houses that I walked past was punctuated with large gaps, like missing teeth, making way for a view of the valley. The mound of bricks and cement, it transpired, was the local school. Like nearly all schools in the district, this one collapsed on 25 April, which, being a Saturday, was closed. The school grounds were now being used to shelter survivors.

To understand the situation in the area, one must know a little of its breathtaking geography. Villages are spread across a series of hills here, and all around you can see the steep, tapered landscape of farmlands against a background of the majestic Himalayan mountain range. To get from one place to another here, you went on foot, across steep hillsides, carefully choosing footholds on rocky outcrops and solid earth.

As the cold morning air began to slowly give way to the powerful heat of the winter sun, Shrijana Baral (featured in the main video) arrived from the nearby village of Melamchi. Shrijana was a community radio journalist and a Christian. Like most people you meet in the district, she had lost her home and several family members in the quake. It is tragic, but that’s how it is here: when you meet someone from Sindhupalchok, you can almost take it for granted they have lost someone in the earthquake.

“This is a hard moment for us, but in this difficult moment we are trusting God,” she said. “Last year we celebrated our Christmas in a beautiful house, a beautiful home, but right now we are in a small and temporary home. It is not a fine situation for us, but we have to hide our sorrow, we have to hide our tears.”

Later, when I meet Pokharel, I ask him about the size of his congregation. It was difficult to put an exact figure to the number of Christians in the area. Some 50 parishioners were expected to the service, he said, though there were many more who were unable to come due to the various stresses the earthquake had inflicted on people’s lives. His flock was growing, he assured me, and maintaining a place of worship was central to that.

The pastor, like most of the people affected by the earthquake, was grateful for the presence of an outsider. Partly this was due to the friendly, welcoming nature of Nepali society, especially in the countryside. You are instantly made to feel like a guest of the highest importance. But it is also because people wanted the world to know about what they had gone—were going—through. There was a sense that they had been forgotten.

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