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’


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’


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
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

‘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

‘Once, I woke up to find a snake slithering in my bed’

“We lost two houses in the earthquake. Our original home in Ikudol and our rented house in Badhikel. We spent five miserable days under the open sky. When we asked for help from our Village Development Committee, they told us to request it from the place we moved to. When we asked here, they said we should ask our original VDC. So we fell between the cracks and received nothing. We managed to buy zinc sheets and begged our neighbours for the bamboo and wood we needed. Now, my parents, my sister and I live under one zinc roof. This single room is our bedroom, kitchen, sitting room and store room. It is too hot in summer, too cold in winter. Once, I woke up to find a snake slithering in my bed. But we’ll probably stay here for four or five years. I’m determined to work hard, earn money, and build a new house for my family.”

Photo: Naomi Mihara

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.”

‘It is not just me in this situation. The whole of Nepal is facing the same tragedy’

“This is where my house stood. I built it myself. I got married here. My seven children grew up here. My parents took their last breath here. So when I walk around it now, it is like I am walking around a piece of my destroyed heart. After the earthquake, we spent some days in a tent provided by the Red Cross, some days in a hut, and some in a buffalo shed. Now we live a very congested life, renting a small room. But I still use the courtyard of my house for the bathroom and for water. My sons and I want to build a new house. We have about Rs 300,000, but that is not enough. I don’t expect any compensation money from the government, but if the government can provide us loans, it would make our lives easy. My sons are ready to take on the loans. But it is not just me in this situation. The whole of Nepal is facing the same tragedy.”

Photo: Mandira Dulal

‘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.