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

‘They have not told me the name of his disease. They just said my son will never be normal’

“They wanted to kill my son because he is not normal. That is why I left my husband and his family in Ramechhap. That was 15 years ago. Since then I have been living here. I work as a maid so that I can rent a room and take care of my son.

“But then the earthquake came and now I live in this camp. It is very difficult. My son cannot control his voice and he is very loud. The others here get angry about him and complain. We are not part of the community here. I want to move, but nobody will rent me a room because of him. So I have to continue here.

“Every day I take my son to the school for disabled children. It is tough, because he cannot walk by himself. I put my arms around him so he does not fall. It’s even worse here in the camp because the paths are not straight. So every morning we stumble on the way together, and in the afternoon we stumble back.

“Whenever I can afford it, I prepare noodles for him. It’s what he loves most. It makes me happy to see him full of joy and relaxed. The doctors have given me some medicine, not to cure him, just to calm him. They have not told me the name of his disease. They just said my son will never be normal.

“But all the hardship does not matter. Because of all what happened during the earthquake I love my son even more than before. We all have lost so much, but I still have him.”

Photo: Sven Wolters

‘We used to be a well-equipped school. Now we don’t even have a library’

“Six students were with me in the library when it happened. I told  everyone to hold each other tight. ‘Don’t panic! Be calm! Pray to god  this will be over soon’, I said. I closed my eyes, I could not look. It  lasted 2.5 long minutes.

“We used to be a well-equipped school. The students were always excited to use our facilities. But now we don’t even have a library. We don’t have a computer lab. We don’t have a science lab. And it’s School Leaving exams. We are hopeful the students’ results won’t be affected by the earthquake. The teachers are working a lot. But these exams are very tough.

“The students are not allowed to enter the school. It is not safe. There are cracks everywhere. The parents asked us: ‘How can we still bring our children here? It’s not safe!’ We had trauma session with psychologists and we built temporary classrooms, right next to the ruin. And a small zinc hut that serves as a canteen.

“We have written to the government. Some ministries want to help with the finances. We have the manpower. We could start building a new school right away. Sure, it will take a few years. We just need the government  to give us the land so we can start.”

Photo: Sven Wolters

‘Now this has become a relaxation spot for goats’

“On the day of the earthquake, the elder people of the village had gathered here. This was where they got together to relax every day. Then the structure collapsed and three of them died. Many others got injured. Now it’s almost a year,  but reconstruction work has not even started. This place has become the relaxation spot for goats. They are not domesticated, they belong to the god. They were given as gifts, for good fortune. As this is a public place, nobody is in charge. No one really cares about them playing in the ruins and the mud.”

Photograph: Sven Wolters

‘We became best friends because of the earthquake’

“We became best friends because of the earthquake. Her house collapsed and her family was moved to this camp, even though they are not from around here. Then she got admitted to the same school I am going to. First I saw her there and when I saw her again later in the camp, I talked to her. And since that day we became best friends.”

Photo: Pratik Rana

‘Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis’

Nearly six months after the earthquake, relief work is still vital for thousands of Nepalis. Hundreds of families are short of food, a cause for grave concern with the winter approaching, particularly for those living in remote areas.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme is the largest humanitarian organisation dedicated to hunger and food security in the world, and has had a strong presence in Nepal since April. A vital aspect of its operations is finding ways to get food to the people who need it most, often across incredibly inhospitable terrain. WFP says it has supplied food to more than 2 million people in earthquake-affected regions of Nepal, using trucks, tractors and helicopters.

Namita Rao and Ritu Panchal met up with Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, at their base in Kathmandu to understand the intricacies of their operations, the constraints they are facing, and the measures they are taking to prepare for the future. Excerpts:

What are your basic roles at WFP in Nepal?

John: Whenever there is a big scale emergency, the WFP activates a cluster system where we take on a leadership role and coordinate with other humanitarian organisations, NGOs, nonprofits and the UN as well as the local government. This structure came about after the 2004 tsunami. So instead of having hundreds of organisations going in at the same time and doing things without coordination, risking unequal distribution of food and wasting food due to profligacy, WFP takes the lead on logistics cluster operations and maximises the geographical spread. In the beginning of an emergency, we get together all the logistics personnel from other humanitarian organisations that are involved in the immediate response to find out the main logistic bottlenecks we are facing. We ask other organisations what their immediate requirement is and then send out help. WFP is mostly the provider of last resort. If there is no other way, we will go in and set up base for all organisations. The response action for the delivery of cargo includes bringing in supplies from the airplanes in batches and storing them at the Humanitarian Staging Area, a common storage area for all the different organisations.

“We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest.”

Dorothy: We came up with the idea of Remote Access Operations to deliver cargo to the farthest villages of the land and to repair trails for transporting cargo. Most people in Nepal live in high mountainous regions. There are no roads and everything is done by trails. After the earthquake, all of the trails were destroyed and the monsoon that came in almost immediately exacerbated the ability of people to move around, as well as to move relief material on ground to the areas that have no access. Helicopters ease the process in such cases, but they are also the most expensive means to do so. We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest. These specialists are very helpful in identifying safety and security issues not only for the humanitarian people involved but also for the locals who live in those areas. We have also gone all the way around using mules, porters and yaks to move the cargo. A lot of pack animals support the high altitude villages and that takes 15 days to deliver from the warehouse all the way up and over a long trek. We recently passed the milestones of 1,000 km of trail and 1,000 tonnes of cargo committed to be moved by RAO.

Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, WFP.

Dorothy Hector and John Myraunet. The WFP is working to ensure food and relief supplies reach even the remotest towns and villages in Nepal. Photo: Ritu Panchal

WFP is in its third phase of relief work. Could you explain what that consists of?

D: In the third phase of food delivery, there is no longer general delivery in terms of free food. We have started delivering food for work. The communities have to now carry out a few days’ work a month with our partner organisations in the field to receive the food. There are other areas that we’ve assessed where there is no food need necessarily but there is a need for the ability to purchase things and have buying power. So we’re doing a cash-for-work programme in those areas that are closer to the towns and markets. The work that is assigned to people does not require any advanced skill, just the use of  basic equipment for cleaning off trails, creating access to local clinics and local water points, doing minor works in the village to make their day-to-day life better.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu. The need for food in many remote areas is still of high importance, although now it is usually provided in exchange for work. Photo: Ritu Panchal

Have there been any frustrations with the relief work that has been coordinated and do you think it could have been handled better?

D: I think that there is no emergency at anytime, anywhere that doesn’t have frustrations and challenges that need to be worked out. We always learn from mistakes and that’s the important thing, to have the ability to look at what you’ve done and make a list of lessons learnt and implement the necessary changes. There’s no such thing as a perfect solution, especially in a disaster. Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis. Here, during the monsoon, the trails change from minute to minute. While delivering cargo, we might have set up a whole portering operation and say, “Yes, we are going to get your food tomorrow,” and we arrive at the trail and we have all the food ready and the porters are standing there and the next thing you know the monsoon has caused a landslide and we’ve lost the trail. This happened to us a couple of times and we sat there at the end of the road thinking, “Okay, you’re not going to get your food tomorrow.” We then got to work immediately fixing the trail and the food was delivered to them a few weeks later. There are things for which we just have to be flexible and work with everyone we can and not be afraid to say, “Yup, we did that wrong and we’ve got to do it right the next time.”

J: Having proper preparedness and investing in preparedness has been a real good lesson to learn from this one. The state of emergency in Nepal has been used as an example at the global level because we had this Humanitarian Staging Area in place before the emergency and that enabled us to start immediately instead of waiting and using a lot of money on flying all the equipment here. Having had this cluster system in place for a while, we see more and more willingness from the different humanitarian acts to work together. So while before it might have been more individually done, now they’re coming together and are sharing information they have with all of the organisations to give a better response together.

What kind of cooperation have you had from the government?

D: It has been incredible from my experience. John can tell you that in every logistics meeting we have had a government representative. The Ministry of Home Affairs has an office right here and we’ve got a coordinator between the civilian and the humanitarian actors in the military. We’ve got a significant amount of activity and support from them as we are here to help the government of Nepal and not to undermine them in any way. We work with them and we work with their approval in the districts. It’s all about coordinating with them, understanding their needs and making sure that our plans are aligned with what their intentions are so that we are actually acting on their behalf in their areas.

There were reports about the suspension of United Nations Humanitarian Air Service due to shortage of funding. Does this issue still exist?

J: We have started flying again. A few donors have come forward to say that they will continue funding and also, at the donors’ request, we have introduced a cost component for the helicopters, so the NGOs are paying 20 per cent of the cost of the service. It’s a bit hard to say how this will affect certain organisations and their budgets for their operations because it is still very expensive to fly.

D: That’s where Remote Access Operation comes into play because that’s when the porters and the yaks can carry cargo between 30 to 60 kg. It is a lot slower but we can get to most of the locations. There are still places where only helicopters can gain access. We still continue to monitor those areas and advise donors because if there are any trails being repaired by heavy engineering, we would prefer that the areas accessible only by helicopters are given top priority so we can ease the financial burden from those trying to help.

Since the earthquake, have you noticed anything peculiar about the way people function on a day-to-day basis?

D: We weren’t there during the earthquake so we can’t really compare, but one thing I’ve noticed is that we most often forget that government officials and public servants are also affected by the earthquake. There’s been a lot of demanding from the Prime Minister and the ministers and the local representatives to do different things and sometimes we forget that they are a part of the suffering too and not just the beneficiaries in the remote areas. Some of them lost their homes, family members and yet they’re still doing their job for the country. So we always have to keep that in mind as those of us who come in afterwards, that our beneficiaries are not always just the people that are hungry and have lost their homes and fields but also the actual people that we’re working with.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu. With winter coming, the need for adequate shelter is vital as many people still have no permanent housing. Photo: Ritu Panchal


“Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it, that we deliver as much as we possibly can.”

What are the challenges that lie ahead?

D: Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it and that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that we deliver as much as we possibly can. By doing so we will be prepared when the snow falls, especially in the remote areas. People need to be able to access food, stores and shelter that we were able to preposition for them so that the winter isn’t going to be as hard as it could be. That’s what we’re most concerned about today and we are working very hard to ensure that we beat the snow.

There have been reports of another quake that is going to hit Nepal. What are the steps that the organisation is taking to be ready to face it?

J: In a place like Nepal which faces danger of a recurring threat, maintaining a structure like the HSA is something that we will continue doing and that will go into next year. We will also be working very closely with the government to assist them. We will be focusing on building the government’s capacity on emergency response, having equipment, staff that is trained and having processes and procedures in place so that we’re better prepared to respond to emergencies.

What future do you see for Nepal’s recovery?

D: One of the bigger issues in Nepal is infrastructure because logistics uses infrastructure like roads, bridges, trails in order to solve problems. Given the effect of the monsoon post the earthquakes, infrastructure is most damaged and as an engineer I’m going to say that it’s going to take a long time to repair everything. People are repairing the road to China, the road to Sindupalchok and once the rain stops they’re planning to do some major work on the tourist trails so there’s going to be enough work for quite a long time. At the end of the day we need to keep in mind that this is an earthquake zone so you repair something and you might have to come back and do it again. It’s all about the infrastructure.

J: Through the logistic cluster we also have a specific working group looking at access and infrastructure to map out the key bottlenecks and identify if anybody has any projects to open those roads and trails.

D: We had planned to work on a trail in Gorkha only to find out that the monks in the monasteries had already done it. Yesterday, talking to another group we found out that the locals have fixed a major trail that goes through the district we had planned to fix. There is an abundance of wealth of information as well as people willing to do things for themselves and their resilience is incredible. I see the resilience of the people that live in the remote areas and they are an incredible group of people. They know what their lifelines are so they get out there and they’re helping themselves every day. It’s really heart-warming to watch them rebuild their country.

‘I was home when the earthquake hit. Coming back here is the scariest thing I have done’

“After the earthquake, we lived in tents for two months. I saw a post on Facebook that said there was going to be a volcanic eruption in Kathmandu soon. All I could think then was about moving away from this valley. I feared this place. I was paranoid about the future, about disasters that might follow. Then two counsellors visited the camp. They said everyone reacts to a natural calamity differently. Some get headaches, some have nausea, some sleep poorly, some sleep well, some eat little, others eat a lot. The place where we were when the earthquake hit is the place that terrifies us the most. The counsellors asked us to go to those places and face our fears. I was at home when the first earthquake hit. Coming back here is the scariest thing I have done. What the counsellors said makes sense. It has taken me a long time, but I am in a much better place now.”

Photo: Namita Rao

In Sindhupalchok, It’s Like The Earthquake Struck Yesterday

THE ROAD THROUGH Sindhupalchok is now clear of rubble, but only just. It takes careful navigation to get past the sections ravaged by recent landslides, where, weakened by the earthquake and exposed to the near-daily onslaught of the ongoing monsoon, the mountain face along the 144-km Araniko highway from Kathmandu to the border town of Kodari continues to pose a constant danger.

Yet one cannot but admire the beauty of the Panchkal valley as it unfolds. The highway, weary with traffic when we left Kathmandu, had melted into stunning scenery—rolling hills and red-rocked mountains decorated with lush greenery spread out before me in waves, alongside tributaries of the river Indrawati. It was like something out of a picture book, an everyday natural beauty, raw and rugged, that you don’t get to see often.

Much of the international media’s post-earthquake reporting was focused on the capital and on Everest, places best known and most regularly frequented by foreign visitors. They suffered hugely, and while there was widespread devastation to both lives and property in the two places, the concentration of destruction was little compared to elsewhere in the country. Sindhupalchok is the worst-affected district. Of the estimated 8,702 earthquake deaths across Nepal, 3,440 were in Sindhupalchok, the highest number in any district. This is nearly three times more than in Kathmandu, whichwith a death toll of 1,222bore the second biggest brunt of the disaster. The number acquires more significance when you factor in that while Kathmandu has a population of around 1 million, Sindhupalchok has roughly 300,000. In other words, this rural district lost more than 1 per cent of its population in the quake. Along with this, an estimated 90 per cent of houses were damaged or destroyed.

The scale of this disaster became more visible once we travelled some 50 km from Kathmandu. Our destination was Bahrabise, one of the worst-hit places in the district, some 22 km before the Tibetan border. As our sturdy Scorpio crossed the Indrawati, I could see a spate of damaged buildings along the way. Much of the route was still stained with the orange-red dust of previously cleared landslides, with the occasional outcropping of mud and rocks jutting out ominously on to the pot-holed road.

As we approached Lamosanghu, small shops began to spring up by the roadside. All around lay huge piles of debris. Houses, some with whole sides damaged beyond repair, stood by. The road was blocked by a large digger, tipping smashed masonry into a truck and villagers worked to clear debris in the pounding midday sun. Dust from the rubble hung heavily in the air. There were people washing themselves from a hose pipe, scrubbing their clothes against rocks in the gutter. To see the storeys-high piles of bricks, cement and twisted metal, it was difficult to believe that work had gone on for a long time. It looked like the earthquake occurred yesterday, not four months ago.

Eliza Khatri, a staff nurse in Lamosanghu

Eliza Khatri, a staff nurse at the Langosanghu Health Camp, attended to many earthquake victims. Some were so traumatised that they wanted to die, rather than heal. Photo: Ashma Gautam

When we spoke to the villagers, it became clear the panic of the initial days have subsided. In its place was a stoicism borne of necessity, which had transformed into diligent hard work, to clear the rubble, to rebuild their lives. The physical and mental injuries were also beginning to heal. “It was very disheartening in the beginning,” said Eliza Khatri, the staff nurse at the Lamosanghu Health Camp, who has been here for the past two months. “People who had nobody left in their families would be the most depressed… It’s better these days. There’s been a lot of progress in most cases.”

The earthquake is only the most recent disaster for the inhabitants of this hilly area. One of my colleagues would later report that a villager she met had seen her home destroyed four times in recent years, the first three times by landslides, and now by the earthquake. Destruction and reconstruction were, for many, a painfully regular feature of life. Another woman, Sushma Shrestha, said, “I am worried about the future. I’m worried about landslides and where to go from here and how to build my house again.”

It is understood in these parts that it probably won’t be long before the next devastating act of nature occurs. And you could see the reason behind that sentiment in the landscape: as we left Lamosanghu and continued along the highway to Bahrabise, the main road suddenly became rough terrain, uneven and curving through large piles of large, white rocks. To our right ran the Sunkoski River, which flows from Tibet. In the mud banks to its left, only slightly higher than river level, stood a house. But only the top floor was visible, the lower floor—or floors—were now metres below the mud. Next to it stood a lone electricity pylon. I initially thought that this too had been a product of the earthquake, but I was wrong. It had happened last August, when the side of the mountain towering over us broke free and deposited 5.5 million cubic metres of rock and earth across the road and into the river, cutting off more than 5 km of the highway, and, for a time, the river itself. The landslide caused 156 deaths and the amassed water created a large lake, and caused floods as far away as northern India. It took more than a month for the army to clear the blocked river. Nature had not been kind to the people of Sindhupalchok, even before the earthquake.

The main road in Bahrabise, Sindhupalchowk, four months after the earthquake. Piles of rubble and building materials line the road.

There is a semblance of normalcy on the main road of Bahrabise. But look closely and you see there is barely a structure here that is undamaged. Photo: Patrick Ward

BAHRABISE was in a similar state as Lamosanghu. Shops were open. There were places you could grab a bite to eat. But this was against the backdrop of piles of rubble, which still blocked many entrances. Most buildings bore the scars of the earthquake. Several had bricks protruding from damaged fronts, while others had partially collapsed under their own weight and stayed propped up precariously by wooden supports. Villagers were clearing rubble, fitting gates to driveways, and standing on top of dangerous half-demolished buildings, knocking away brickwork into the street below by hand.

As I watched, a large bus arrived, and people disembarked carrying large bags of rice and other essentials. The vital highway—the only route through the area to Tibet, some 20 km north—was now clear, but for a long time it hadn’t been. Villagers described how, after the earthquake, the road was lost to sight entirely; how clearing it had been a priority, for the blockade had cut off the area from the rest of the country.

Many of the villagers still lived in temporary shelters. Through the gaps between the buildings and the foliage behind, I could make out a hill dotted with multicoloured tents. We walked towards it, crossing a pile of rubble, then up a steep pathway, till a field opened up. There were dozens of tents there. Dogs and goats trotted around freely by the camp. In the background stood steep, majestic green hills.

In front of the camp stood a large, white UNICEF medical tent. Next to that, a small shelter converted into a shop, selling sweets, cigarettes, and strips of paan. A few metres behind, a young woman, Rachana, used her tent as a tailoring business. “The earthquake damaged my shop, so now I run it from the shelter,” she said. “But here I don’t get as many customers as I did previously.” 

When she first moved to her tent after the quake, Rachana said she cried everyday for almost a month. “We have no proper ceiling, no proper floor, no furniture here,” she said, as she measured and chalked fabric. “It’s hard to sleep because of the cold floor and the noise of bugs.”

Among the inhabitants, there was frustration at the government for not being proactive in tackling reconstruction programmes. There was also some bitterness, particularly as some villagers felt the government had directed its attention first to saving foreigners from the disaster. Raju, a young man standing near the makeshift shop, lost his friend in the earthquake when a falling rock struck his head. “It isn’t right that foreigners were saved first,” he said. “We live here, so we deserved help.”

But there was also a sense among the inhabitants that they had to be proactive if they were to get by. Their shops and businesses had collapsed, along with their housing. The small businesses growing out of the camp were their attempt to address that.

A house still buried under rubble, four months after the Nepal earthquake in Bahrabise, Sindhupalchok. There were many similar sights en route to this village, and the task that faces these villagers is more than daunting. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

The villagers of Bahrabise need to first clear piles of rubble before they can rebuild their houses. There were similar sights along the road from Kathmandu to this village. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

Though not initially apparent, the trauma people had gone through broke out every now and again. One woman spoke of how she had been trapped in her collapsed house, with debris pinning her down by the arm. She kept holding her arm, and repeating how it hurt. Others were simply grateful that their initial fears of losing family members had proved unfounded. Rachana, the seamstress, described her feeling when she found her husband was alive, “It was like the miracle of my life.”

As the villagers worked stoically with whatever tools they had to clear rubble and rebuild, the sheer scale of the task ahead seemed more than daunting. Without houses, hospitals, schools and other vital instruments of a civil society, there was a level of despair in their bravery. And with a cold winter coming, as well as the ever-present danger of landslides, not to mention earthquakes, there is every possibility that without adequate attention, the situation in Sindhupalchok could get worse still.

The sun was still hot when we left Bahrabise. People were clearing debris, carrying away sacks filled with rubble on their backs. Our return ride to Kathmandu was long, and we sat for much of the time in silence. As the sun set against a purple sky over the green hills, I could see mounds of rubble punctuating the view around us. The mounds were once houses. Each had a story, each had inhabitants. Many of the inhabitants will now be living in shelters. Many others will never see a sunset again.

Additional reporting: Enika Rai, Unnat Sapkota, Preeti Karna, Ashma Gautam and Bidhur Dhakal.

‘Sometimes when Emisha asks about her mother, silence kills us both’

“Her name was Mithu, Mithu Parajuli. You know what Mithu means? Mithu means ‘sweet’. My sister was sweet to everyone, but she was not sweet enough for God. That’s why God gave her a cruel death. She was inside the rubble for two days. It took nine years for her to build a happy family, with a son and a daughter. But it didn’t take even a second to destroy that happiness. Her husband was injured, her children lost their mother. Of the two, I brought Emisha with me. When I look into this little girl’s face, I see my sister. Sometimes when Emisha asks about her mother, silence kills us both.”

Photo: Mandira Dulal