South Asia

Army finds it tough to reach aid to Nepal villages

Four-month-old baby boy Sonit Awal is held up by Army soldiers after being rescued from the rubble of his house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.  

As the official death toll in Saturday’s earthquake crossed 5,500 on Thursday, the focus of relief operations shifted to the villages and remote areas near the epicentre as Nepal’s Army fought against time to take food supplies and bring back the injured.

The Hindu rode with a Nepali Army rescue helicopter to Sindhupalchok district, about 65 km northeast of Kathmandu, which has reported the highest death toll. The mission was to carry food supplies to the village of Tatopani and the surrounding areas, about three miles from the Chinese border, and bring back at least 40 people who had been rescued in the past two days. To do this, however, the helicopter had to set up base in one of the only open strips of land available — in the small village of Narantan.

From the sky, during the 20-minute flight to Sindhupalchok, the scale of the damage, and the incredible difficulty of mounting any rescue mission, was immediately evident. Miles of mountainous terrain, serrated with agricultural plots, were dotted with small settlements of destroyed houses. Landslips had occurred on several slopes and strips of orange here and there indicated areas where the Army has been able to reach and set up relief tents. The estimate, conservative at best, is that about 70-80 per cent of the houses in this region have been destroyed.

Small copters, frequent trips

From Narantan, where the landing strip is the size of a small football field, a series of smaller helicopters, able to seat about 5 persons, touched down every 10-15 minutes to unload injured and rescued persons from the surrounding hills. In turn, they would take bags of rice and boxes of biscuits and instant noodles from the supply helicopter back to the areas from where they came. This process had been repeated for two days.

Dr. Subhesh Gimire, a geophysicist from Kathmandu says he and a team of three others were conducting a feasibility study for a hydro-power project in the Liping River near the Chinese border when the quake struck. “Ironically, we were using a French instrument to do a scan below the surface at the time. We all immediately knew what was happening,” he said. Dr. Gimire and his team were rescued three days later from the Dry Port near Liping.

Similarly, Lal Prasad Bhattarai, a teacher, was taking 35 people from his micro-finance co-operative on a hike to the India Nepal border. He says, with a laugh, that it was meant to be a team bonding trip. After the earthquake, many of his team managed to survive but saw many people die before their eyes when the second quake caused landslides on Sunday. They walked for two days until they were found by locals at Narayan Chowk and brought to the village. "There is little water or food to share but however then can help, whether by providing tents or utensils for food, they have been helping," he explains. Though several of the people in the village have lost their homes, and some even family members, they are determined to start over again. "There is no point in going to the city or moving away. After we make sure all the injured are rescued from here we will start again," says Chandrakala Sherpa, who runs the village's only shop.

When an army chopper eventually arrives there is an elaborate process of checking who qualifies to be taken directly to Kathmandu. An army doctor assesses injuries and the serious ones are stretchered on to the flight. Foreign tourists are also given priority. Those who stay behind ask us to make calls to their families to tell them that they are safe and waiting for a rescue flight. Hurriedly, they scribble specific messages to be conveyed on sheets of paper.

The Nepal Army has stepped up these operations over the past two days, making over 50 sorties a day, but they say the scale of the operation is overwhelming. Our next stop is the army's battalion station in Chautara, also in Sindhupalchok. From the helipad, which offers a 360 degree view of the surrounding hills. It's evident from here, that many of the 'villages' from where rescue operations have to be mounted are no more than small settlements, identifiable only by nearby landmarks. A senior army officer admits that the army might not reach everybody affected. "Some of these places are so remote, they have no administration or local police. We have no idea what is going on or if we will be able to recover the body in times," he says.

He is glad, he adds, of reports that various foreign NGOs are mobilising forces now to help, but points out that there is always going to be a problem of access. "The more people we have helping us the better it is. Bit some of our pilots have been flying in these areas for 18 years and they still find it difficult to make landings here." The Nepal government has already appealed to other countries to provide more choppers. With the monsoon, and 3 months of continuous rain, expected to set in soon, time is swiftly running out.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 12:19:49 PM |

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