“Waiting for others to help us with our wants and desires will only hold us back. My family and me are ready to work hard to secure our future. We are ready to sweat to overcome the pain of this disaster.”
Photo: Unnat Sapkota
“Waiting for others to help us with our wants and desires will only hold us back. My family and me are ready to work hard to secure our future. We are ready to sweat to overcome the pain of this disaster.”
Photo: Unnat Sapkota
“That terrible earthquake buried everything. I lost my wife, my children lost their mother, I lost the business, I lost my leg. I lost everything. I don’t even want to remember that day. My wife, Mithu, used to fast, worship God and visit pilgrims, but that selfish God was not just to her and her family. Life has changed a lot for me since the earthquake. With steel fitted inside my injured body and two small children in my lap, I need to fight back against a life full of darkness. I need to go for medical checks every month. I have no plans for the future. Sooner or later, I need to rise for the sake of the kids. I am thinking of setting up the business again. Let’s see where time will lead me and my children.”
Photo: Mandira Dulal
“Every house in our village collapsed during the earthquake,” said Ram Sharan Parajuli. “It’s a miracle no one died.” We were standing at the spot where his home used to be, now reduced to mounds of stones and piles of wooden beams. “There used to be four houses here, but now it is all gone.”
The 24-year-old physics student had travelled from Kathmandu to his home for Dashain, the longest and most auspicious festival on the Nepali calendar. This year, along with the other villagers of Chimling Beshi, he was celebrating it in a temporary shelter. It seemed a bittersweet coincidence that Dashain – which celebrates the victory of good over evil – overlapped with the six month anniversary of the worst natural disaster to hit Nepal in 80 years.
We had set out for Sindhupalchok earlier that day on a bus packed with men, women and children wearing their best clothes, foreheads adorned with red tikas, on their way to visit relatives. Our overloaded bus climbed into the hills, swinging perilously around the corners of the twisting roads. The road journey felt dangerous, but when you look at the small, fragile houses on the hillside, many of them partially or completely destroyed, you realise that precariousness is a part of everyday life in this part of Nepal.
Chimling Beshi is one of many villages in Sindhupalchok district that was destroyed by the earthquake in April. Every house suffered severe damage and was rendered uninhabitable. The district suffered more devastation than any other, with around 3,500 deaths and nearly 64,000 houses – around 90 per cent –listed as ‘fully damaged’. The village is part of Mankha, the second most badly affected Village Development Committee in the district, where more than 7,500 people required immediate assistance after the earthquake. Six months after the earthquake, we were on our way to spend the night in the village, to see how life had changed for its inhabitants since the disaster.
AFTER WE CLIMBED a steep path from the nearby town of Khadichaur, rows of glinting metal roofs peeking out of lush foliage came into view. The small shacks were built by the villagers within a week of the earthquake, using materials salvaged from their ruined houses and bamboo from the forest.
“After the earthquake, the rainy season started and people were scared of landslides,” said Ram, as we navigated a steep path. “It was very hot and we had to carry large tin sheets two at a time from our old house.”
Below the six rows of tin houses stood three temporary school buildings for the younger children, built by NGOs shortly after the earthquake. Other than 25 kg of rice per household and some tin sheets, the villagers received little in the way of relief goods. It was difficult not to feel a sense of sadness at what had happened to this community. And yet, Chimling Beshi was full of life. Children were playing cards, elders were placing tikas onto the foreheads of their younger relatives, and the villagers had built a giant swing (called ping in Nepali) for Dashain.
But the scene was very different at the site of the old village, which stood a short trek away, on an adjacent hill. Within six months, the jungle had consumed what remained of the village. The trails were hidden under a blanket of moss and grass, and creepers and wild flowers grew on the broken walls of what used to be houses. It was hard to imagine that the same place was a thriving, sustainable community, and that these ruins used to be homes, which echoed with laughter. Babies were born here, elders had died here – but now nothing remained except for the ghost of a settlement.
We clambered over rocks that had plunged down the hillside to reach four families who had decided to build temporary shelters next to the remains of their houses, rather than move. Weren’t they afraid of landslides?
“During the rainy season, I can’t sleep,” said Saraswoti Poudel. “But we didn’t want to leave our animals and our land.”
Their biggest concern was having better shelter, which was too costly for them to build on their own. The yearning for a proper home would become a familiar tale that we would hear again and again during our stay.
It was beginning to get dark as we made the hike back to the new village. That evening, Radha, Ram’s mother, prepared a meal of lentils, rice and potatoes for us, all gathered from the farmland. Subsistence farming has become more difficult since the family moved to the new location, as they now have to walk further to gather food from their land, which lies near their old home.
As we ate our meal outside the shelter, we began to shiver. The day and night time temperatures in Nepal fluctuate considerably. Earlier on, it had been searingly hot; but now, there was a harsh chill. We could only imagine how cold it might get in the winter, which was fast approaching. The tin sheets would provide little insulation to the villagers.
Inside the shelter, two chipped but sturdy double beds occupied most of the space, in addition to two cupboards and a dresser. A line of colourful clothes were hung up across one wall. We slept that night in thick blankets provided by our host, the blare of TV sets from the adjacent houses clearly audible.
THE NEXT MORNING, we woke early to the sounds of a village beginning to stir. The clatter of pots and pans, the clamour from the radio, and the smell of burning charcoal filled the air. We could see villagers occupied with their morning chores. Several of them were making their way down the tapering trail, towards their old settlement to tend to their land and animals, to pick vegetables. Many were making multiple trips to carry water home from a remote tap<
“We are compromising on even our basic needs,” said Nikesh Parajuli. “So building a house is a distant dream.” The 16-year-old’s biggest concern was that he found it difficult to study: being in cramped clusters, the settlement offered little space and he found it difficult to concentrate amidst all the noise. “I don’t even dare to hope for that here,” he said.
Many villagers were hoping that their situation would be resolved soon. “For the time being, we don’t mind living here because it’s just temporary,” said Subash Battarai, a 21-year-old student, who had returned home for the festival>
How could they be sure, we wondered? “Hope is everything,” said Ram, simply.
Despite six months having passed, the villagers have no choice but to hold onto the promise made by the government back in April, of 200,000 Rs (around
When we broached the topic of politics, the sense of frustration was palpable. So far, households have only received 15,000 Rs (£95), a tiny fraction of the cost of rebuilding a house. One resident, Madan Krishna Adhikari, told us he had already spent that amount clearing the rubble of his old house.
“The government is not taking our problems seriously,” he said. “Even the plans of the earthquake-proof houses they proposed have not been released yet.” His biggest needs were getting basic construction materials, such as cement and iron rods, and the capital needed to build the house, he said.
As we walked past the remains of another house, a sudden jolt shook the ground. A small girl ran past us into the arms of her grandmother, who had just emerged from a tin shack next to the rubble. It was the first time we had felt an aftershock in Nepal. But they occur frequently in this part, the villagers told us, providing a constant reminder that the next earthquake could happen anytime.
The elderly woman, Bal Kumari Parajuli, told us that before the earthquake her whole family had lived together in the house. But her son and daughter-in-law had decided to move with their young children to Kathmandu shortly afterwards. The children have returned to celebrate Dashain. But the earthquake and the destruction of her family home have traumatised Bal Kumari.Every morning she wakes up to the sight of her broken house, which is a perpetual reminder of what happened.
“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “I miss my family and I am still worried about earthquakes.”
Like so many villages in Nepal, Chimling Beshi is a community in limbo, waiting for help that may or may not arrive so that they can rebuild their homes. Normality has been disrupted, but even these circumstances have become normal for the villagers now.
“Earthquakes come and go,” said Anant Kumari Adhikari, who allowed the other villagers to build their shelters on her land. “It has become like a habit.”
The villagers of Chimling Beshi had an incredible escape from death in April. Nearly every house here suffered severe damage in the earthquake, but Chimling Beshi, which falls under Sindhupalchok, the district most affected by the disaster, lost no lives. “It was truly a miracle,” said Ram Parajuli, one of the survivors. As the disaster made their old settlement more vulnerable to landslides, the villagers have now relocated, building temporary shelters using the tin sheets they could salvage from the ruins of their houses and bamboo from the jungle. Six months after the earthquake, Naomi Mihara and Ritu Panchal visit the community.
“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
Submerged in the political wrangling over its new constitution and the furore surrounding the fuel shortage in Nepal lies an imminent, far severe crisis for the thousands of earthquake survivors living in the higher reaches of the Himalayan nation.
Winter is coming and they have no real shelter.
“We are in a race against time to reach 84,000 people with vital supplies before snow sets in,” says Iolanda Jacquemet of the World Food Programme, which leads the United Nations Logistics Cluster, the agency responsible for coordinating relief operations in the country. “Earthquake-affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world in about 3-4 weeks.”
In the last fortnight, across Nepal, earthquake relief has suffered severely. Protests by ethnic groups in the Tarai region near the Indian border over their underrepresentation in Nepal’s newly enacted constitution resulted in a pile-up of supply trucks from India, leading to a severe fuel shortage in the country. The Dashain festival, when most Nepalis travel home to celebrate with families, began yesterday, and has accentuated the need for mobility, placing further pressure on the already squeezed resources available for relief work.
“We have used the last drop of diesel available to distribute food,” says Jacquemet. “Fuel for choppers will expire in one week. We are 30 per cent late on our distributions as of today.”
The situation is particularly serious for those in the hilly, remote areas of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok, where temperatures dip to below zero. Supplies can only reach these communities through a combination of off-road vehicles, porters and mules. WFP has one month’s worth of food relief supplies ready on the ground. But the lack of diesel has meant distributions to some 224,000 people have been severely disrupted, says Jacquemet.
Survivors face the prospect of a winter in open tents in the lower reaches as well. Sudarshan Shrestha from Save the Children spoke of how his organisation had promised goods and supplies to several communities before Dashain, and how that commitment could not be kept. If relief work does not pick up momentum quickly, he says, “we could could end up with a double humanitarian crisis”.
In Chhoprak, a remote village in the Gorkha district, where 1,504 of the 1,531 houses were destroyed by the earthquake, the Nepali NGO Women for Human Rights faces a similar, broken promise. Most households live in temporary shelters without proper windows or doors, and WHR is concerned that supplies such as solar lights, winter clothes and blankets will not get dispersed in time.
“We have distributed 8,000 items over the past two months,” says WHR founder Lily Thapa. “We still have 10,000 more to distribute.”
The fuel crisis has also pushed up the cost of distributing relief for NGOs. “Usually the private vehicles we hire to take goods from Kathmandu to Gorkha cost around NPR 22,000 [approximately £138],” says Bisheshta Shrestha, an aid worker at WHR. “That has doubled right now. Local transport in Gorkha is even more expensive.”
Further, NGOs face the prospect of losing donor support if they do not meet agreed objectives. “If you don’t finish your work within the deadline, you have to find another funding source,” says Ram Hari Adhikari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. “It’s the same story for all the NGOs.”
Adhikari works in Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, building community toilets and hygiene facilities. That work has been hampered by the unavailability of cement, sand, and other construction materials. In addition, the fuel crisis has had severe economic and social impacts on the communities in the district.
“Many people working in the transportation industry are jobless at the moment. Those selling goods which come from India, like milk and vegetables, are also suffering,” Adhikari says. “After the earthquake, schools closed for two months. Now, schools have been disrupted again, so children can’t finish their courses this academic year.”
In the southern plains of the Tarai region too, NGOs are facing issues. Relief has been disrupted by the turbulence caused by the Madhesi and Tharu protesters calling for amendments to Nepal’s new constitution. An EU delegation to Nepal last week issued a statement expressing concern about the effects of the current situation on “the poorest segments of the population, including in the Tarai”. General strikes have crippled everyday life in the Tarai for the past few months; curfews were imposed and many schools suspended classes.
“In the past weeks we’ve had to temporarily close operations in six districts, in the interests of the safety of our staff,” says Sudarshan Shrestha. The Nepal Red Cross faced several incidents of vandalism. In one incident, an ambulance was set on fire and an injured patient killed.
The UN Logistics Cluster has now requested the government for priority access to fuel. But Rameshwar Dangal, head of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Disaster Management Division, is doubtful it will be approved immediately.
“We have a huge crisis due to Dashain,” he says. “I think the government will prioritise providing fuel to public transport and private vehicles.”
At this point, like the rest of the nation, aid agencies can only wait for the situation to improve. But time is running out fast. “Even if the situation improved tomorrow,” says Sudarshan Shrestha, “it would take us a week or more to get back on our feet.”
“I had a house and a shop in the market area. Now I live in this shelter. I sew clothes here. When I had to move in here with my family, I cried for almost a month. There is nothing here. No ceiling, no floor, no furniture. It’s hard to sleep on the cold ground. It’s hard to care for my family. But then I remember the day of the earthquake. I was cutting cloth in my shop when the earth shook. At first, I ignored it. But then I ran out when I felt how massive it was. I had left my husband in our house. I was scared for him because our house is quite old. I tried to run home, but I couldn’t. The road was blocked with rubble from destroyed houses. I screamed and I cried. After half an hour or so, my husband found me. He was covered with dust, and without slippers on his feet. When he appeared in front of me, it was like a fairytale. It was the most miraculous moment of my life.”
Photo: Unnat Sapkota
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, which—with a death toll of 1,222—bore 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
“I was in my room after night duty. At first, I never realised that it was an earthquake, I thought it was the sound of a heavy bus that shook the house. But when I saw the house next door collapse in front of my eyes, something clicked in my head and I realised it was an earthquake. I ran. At the same time I got hit on the head, but it was a minor injury. The hospital was destroyed. Our staff made a shelter on open ground near the hospital area, and provided a service as soon as possible. Lots of people got killed and badly injured. We had trouble because more and more injured people came for treatment. Doctors, nurses and all the other staff provided 24-hour service as much as possible. Most of the injured people recovered, and some seriously injured people were referred to Kathmandu Hospital.
People are badly hurt, mentally and physically, and so am I. I got scared, and cried again and again. Later, I controlled myself, knowing that I had to be brave and help the injured people calmly, without fear. Now, when I remember those moments, I feel very proud that I could help people in a traumatic situation, and in future it will help me to face other traumatic situations. Seeing people who have recovered and are alive, I feel relief. It puts a smile on my face. I realise that there is no greater profession than humanity.”
Photo: Enika Rai