‘People don’t want to show their personal life any more’

‘People don’t want to show their personal life any more’

“Today is the National Photojournalist Day. But it is also the anniversary of the earthquake. So instead of celebrating ourselves, we decided to donate blood. It is our currency. Right behind me is where the Dharahara tower collapsed and many people died. The Nepalese people had a very challenging year since then. A year of aftershocks and the blockade. It changed people in a way. People used to be happy when we photojournalists would take their picture. But now they don’t want show their personal life any more.”

Photo: Sven Wolters

‘Some engineers said my house was unstable, others said it only needs minor repairs’

“Right now I am confused. My house has been inspected by the municipality and the Central Districts Office. The community service also inspected it. The municipality engineers said my house was unstable. The CDO engineers said it can be made stable by demolishing the top two of the four storeys. The community service said it could be safe to live with minor repairs. So now, what do I do?

“And I’m not alone with this problem. There is one house in my locality with cracks all over. One engineer said they only need some taku [wooden beams] to keep living there. All around Patan there are houses supported with taku. But with the aftershocks still going on, the situation is hazardous. These houses could fall down even with a minor quake. People live in constant danger. But if they were to demolish their houses, where would they live?

“The government focuses on fully destroyed houses. But what about partially damaged ones? They are silent on this matter and people are left to live in danger. It seems we don’t have any alternative besides living in houses with taku. Even that is not cheap. The three takus for my house cost me Rs 38,000 [approximately £230].

“Also, CDO officials say that a person having two houses can only get relief for one of them, even if both are damaged. That doesn’t sound fair to me. I’m paying taxes for both house I own, but I get relief for only one of them?”

Photo: Nitika Shrestha

‘I want the king back’

“I want the king back. Now the prince of another country came to us to know what we are going through. If we had our own king and a prince, then they would have visited us instead. And our situation would be better.”

Photo: Pratik Rana Magar

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.”

‘He had seen Anju two minutes before. Two minutes after, she was gone’

“Anju was my daughter-in-law. She had just come back from the river, after washing clothes. She ran in to save her daughter, Anisha, who was eating in the kitchen. Anisha was saved, but Anju got stuck under the rubble.

“It took us more than an hour-and-a-half to locate where she was buried. She was under the rubble of two houses. There were continuous aftershocks at that time, which terrified us. Even our goats betrayed us that day. When we were looking for her, we heard a sound. We thought it was Anju, we dug out the rubble. But it was the goats. We saved them, but we lost Anju.

“I do not know if Anisha understands her mother is gone. She keeps asking for her. When she gets angry, she lies on the ground, asking for her mother. She cries covering her face. She wants her mother. We have not let her see the picture of Anju.

“My son Suresh has not been the same. He cried a lot. He was like a madman. It took a long time for the villagers to make him understand death is an inseparable part of life. Everyone will die once they are on earth. The only question is whether it is sooner or later. He had seen Anju two minutes before. Two minutes after, she was gone. He has not been able to forget that.

“My husband Damodar performed the funeral rituals. We received NPR 140,000 [about £880] from the government. Suresh has kept the money in a cooperative bank account in Anisha’s name. Six months have passed, but none of us are able to forget.”

Photo: Mandira Dulal

‘This time I may not be at home for all the celebrations’

“I have celebrated this festival for 23 years now. It was always the same. We went to the temples, did the puja of the gods and goddesses, cooked food and spent time with the family. However, this time I may not be at home for all the celebrations because I have a project in Rasua. I am reestablishing the schools that have collapsed so I will be leaving whenever they call me. It has definitely been very different this year, not as joyful as before. In our prayers, we made it a point to thank God that the family is alive and we are not jobless.”

Photo: Namita Rao

‘If people don’t have a house, how will they enjoy the festival?’

“Dashain is not the same as it was before. Six months after the earthquake, there are so many people still living in 15-18 tents in my neighbourhood. If people don’t have a house, how will they enjoy the festival? They feel embarrassed to welcome their relatives into a tent that they share with three other families. On the first day of Dashain, I stood in the petrol line with my bike from 4 am to 11 pm for five litres of petrol. This is a testing time for us, but it has made me realise we need to be independent, take ownership, assess what we have, and make the most of the local resources.”

Photo: Namita Rao

‘This is the first time I am sharing these details with anyone besides my mother and sister’

“We have been living in a temporary shelter after the earthquake and it happened there. The man came in when I was finishing my homework. My mother and sister were working in the fields. I would have gone with them, but I had a gash on my hand from the last time I went to cut grass. He asked where my mother was. When I told him, he started inching towards me, enquiring about my arm. He put his hands on my chest and then tried to shove his hands up my skirt. He asked me which class I studied in as he did that. When I pushed him away and ran out, he wanted to know where someone as little as me got so much strength. We lost our house in the earthquake. Now this is my home, where I am supposed to be secure. It’s difficult for me to go to school. This is the first time I am sharing the details of what happened with anyone besides my mother and sister, but I know some people know about this in school. Facing them is almost as bad as the incident itself. Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if my father was alive, or we hadn’t lost our home.”

Photo: Ritu Panchal

‘They used to say, “Give me medicine to kill myself. Don’t give me medicine to heal.” It’s better now’

“It was very disheartening in the beginning when I came here. People who had nobody left in their families would be the most depressed. They used to say, ‘Give me medicine to kill myself. Don’t give me medicine to heal. There is no point.’ It’s better these days. There’s been a lot of progress in most cases. Most people’s physical injuries have been healed. I feel better as well.”

Photo: Ashma Gautam

‘The only way Nepal can pay these debts is to take out new loans’

In the wake of the earthquake, Nepal has been promised $4 billion in aid by the international community. Much of this money is yet to materialise, primarily because the political process in the country was paralysed by ongoing debates over the new constitution. With the constitution now enacted, it is expected that aid money will finally reach Nepal, and be put to use in the reconstruction of infrastructure.

But there is a catch.

Nepal, which is the 22nd poorest country in the world in terms of  average national income, has a debt that currently stands at $3.5 billion. And despite the disaster, this has not been written off by international creditors.

Not just that. The International Monetary Fund, one of Nepal’s lenders, expect the nation to pay back the debt in full, as the disaster was not severe enough to ‘qualify’ for debt relief. This, says Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, is not only counterproductive but simply “outrageous”. In this interview with Patrick Ward, the policy officer of the London-based JDC, which specialises in campaigns for cancelling unjust debts in the developing world, speaks about the debt trap that Nepal is in.

How big a burden is international debt on Nepal?

Nepal this year will be spending $210 million on debt repayments, and obviously on top of all the damage caused by the earthquake that’s money that it can’t afford. The other danger is that lots of the international assistance that comes is going to be in the form of loans from people like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, so that further adds to the debt. It means that the cost of the crisis continues for many years to come.

Of the financial assistance to Nepal over the five years from 2009 to 2013, Nepal received $1.7 billion, 33 per cent, in loans, and $3.5 billion, 66 per cent, in grants. Of the $4.4 billion pledged since the earthquake, at the donor conference, half is apparently grants, half loans.

Who is the money owed to?

Of Nepal’s $3.5 billion external debt, $1.5 billion is owed to the World Bank and $1.4 billion to the Asian Development Bank, institutions owned by governments around the world. If the debt was cancelled they say they would have to find the money from somewhere else. But they actually make a profit on various forms of lending elsewhere, so they would be able to cover the costs through that. They have lots of pockets of free money lying around.

“It’s outrageous how the international community keep requiring these payments to be made, then are able to get lots of positive publicity for themselves as they talk about how much money they’re going to give.”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any let-up in repayments. Another institution, the International Monetary Fund, is owed less by Nepal, but it’s still owed something. They, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, created a scheme to cancel debts following a catastrophe. They’ve actually said in this instance that Nepal’s earthquakes were not catastrophic enough for Nepal to qualify for debt relief. So they expect Nepal to pay back their debts in full, which we think is absolutely outrageous. It’s outrageous how the international community keep requiring these payments to be made, then are able to get lots of positive publicity for themselves as they talk about how much money they’re going to give. But it isn’t really mentioned that those are loans as well.

What sort of strings are attached to the loans given out by these bodies?

One of the historical reasons why they don’t like to cancel debt is that it gives them control over what governments do. It means external control over government budgets. The only way Nepal can pay these debts is to take out new loans, and with new loans, governments have to implement policies that the IMF and World Bank tell them to implement. Historically it’s been things like requiring publicly owned enterprises to be privatised, opening up to international trade, deregulating the economy, removing things like labour laws and reducing the power of trade unions. If then a country defaults, it becomes an international pariah. People stop giving money.

Greece is a case for this. It has seen massive public sector cuts over the past five years, the economy has shrunk by 25 per cent. Jamaica is another country in debt crisis. The IMF, which is seen as a gatekeeper, demanded a 7.5 per cent primary surplus, so lots of austerity. That’s been going on for the past 20 years. The number of children in primary schools in Jamaica has dropped from 100 per cent to 75 per cent in that time.

What can people do to change this?

We’ve supported a call by 30 organisations across Asia, and around 200 organisations internationally, calling for Nepal’s debt to be cancelled following the earthquake and for any international assistance to be given as grants, not loans. In the UK, more than 5,000 people have written to the UK’s representatives at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, calling on them to cancel the debt.