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Choppers, rubble & open sky: Chasing the quake story

As we followed the work of rescue teams working across the city, trying to find survivors among the ruins, it was evident that the bigger problem was the huge number of people who were sleeping out in the open.  

It was a Sunday, the day after the quake, and my Spice Jet flight to Kathmandu took off at 12.30 pm full of passengers: they were divided equally into eager journalists and anxious Nepalis rushing home to their families.

An hour into flight taking off, the pilot came announced on the intercom that another earthquake had struck Nepal. The plane was now being diverted back to Delhi, but infuriatingly, he had no more details. A group of journalists sent the head steward multiple times to ask whether it was aftershock or another earthquake. What did it measure on the Richter scale? Most importantly, would we be able to get on another flight to Kathmandu today?

Within minutes of landing back in Delhi the phones flashed the news. It was a 6.9! The Kathmandu airport was shut for now but may reopen in the evening. Because I was with a group of journalists at this time, our first thoughts were jealous ones – we heard that an Air India flight had taken off at 10 am with several journalists in it while our travel agents had told us that the first flights out started at noon. Already, those journalists had the advantage. It didn't look like we would get to Kathmandu before nightfall.

The laborious process of check-in, immigration and security was undertaken once more. The immigration officer, seeing my Indian passport, says I must be from the media. “Everyone else is coming back from there,” he says. We piled into a new Spice Jet flight that took off at 6.30 pm. It circled for an hour around Kathmandu because of bad weather. It landed at about 9.30 pm. We had finally made it.

As we waited to disembark I spoke to two Government servants who were returning from a training workshop in Delhi. They had left on Saturday morning, almost as if providentially escaping the earthquake, one of them wryly noted. They gave me a quick run-through on the situation: electricity and basic services were down in Kathmandu and most people had left their houses and were sleeping out in tents.

“I doubt you will even find a taxi from the airport,” one of them said. He intended to go to Gorkha district near the epicenter where the damage was the worst. “I have heard that 90 per cent of the houses there are destroyed. I lost my father-in-law. But first I have to meet my family here and make sure they are okay.”

As we get off the plane we see the airport's long and narrow departure lounge to our right. It's usually empty I'm told, but tonight there are hundreds packed in, peering out into the rain at our aircraft, wondering if it has come to take them out of Nepal. Hundreds of people have also camped outside the airport when we get out and for the first time, you begin to realise the extent of the panic.

Rumours about Mars

A taxi is got for an exorbitant price and as he drives through the city you notice that there is almost no police presence or armed forces on the roads – something I was expecting in an emergency situation. The taxi driver first insists on showing me the remains of the Dharahara tower, an iconic Kathmandu landmark that has been reduced to a stump of wood. In the dark it is difficult to see.

In every hotel I went to, I found there were guests sleeping on sofas in the lobby rather than in their rooms, while the staff slept on the floor. In every hotel I went to, I found there were guests sleeping on sofas in the lobby rather than in their rooms, while the staff slept on the floor.

Except in the Radisson: funny how people equate five-star comfort with greater safety. The receptionist at one hotel tells me that he has rooms, but he cannot let me go up as he doesn't know what could happen. “I heard on the news that there are rays from Mars that are striking Nepal. People are saying that there will be an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale that will strike soon.” I would hear that rumour a lot over the next few days.

As it happened, I finally found a hotel and a sleepy receptionist, with great doubt written on his face, let me take a room on the second floor. You can't really feel it when you are out on the road, but inside here you can feel a tremor almost every half an hour or so. Just the rattle of a window most times but with sometimes the building shook like there was a great churning in the ground beneath. On three or four occasions I found myself racing down the stairs. I hadn't changed or taken off my shoes and I only kept a rucksack filled with a few essentials at my side.

The persistent rain of the previous night let up on Monday morning, allowing those of us a chance finally to assess the situation. The destruction seemed illogical. It wasn’t as if entire neighborhoods were brought down, but dotted across Kathmandu were random buildings that had fallen while others, of similar sizes continued to stand.

Competition & camaraderie

As we followed the work of rescue teams working across the city, trying to find survivors among the ruins, it was evident that the bigger problem was the huge number of people who were sleeping out in the open. A Nepali army major I spoke to said he was the first to take a helicopter up to do a recce of the city minutes after the earthquake struck. A keen photographer, he showed me pictures clicked from the helicopter of thousands of people running thought the streets of Kathmandu, making a beeline for big grounds and parks. All through Monday and Tuesday, the persistent rumour was that a larger earthquake would hit and, despite the rain that followed the next day, no one was willing to go back into their houses. “Better to be out here where nothing can fall on us,” one family I spoke to reasoned.

For journalists, the initial story was the destruction in Kathmandu, especially the demolition of its historical monuments – the Basantapur and Patan durbar squares along with the ancient city of Bhaktapur.

The next targets were the areas near the epicentre. As more and more journalists from all over the world started arriving in Kathmandu there was intense competition to see who could make it to the areas most affected. Gorkha suddenly became a kind of buzzword and the place that every journalist had to go to. Several went by road, travelling solo or with NGOs. But the feedback we got was that that some affected areas were so remote they could only be accessed by helicopter. The majority of journalists ended up staying in the same two or three hotels around Lazimpat so it was no coincidence that everyone seemed to have similar ideas, even if there was competition.

Very early on, the Indian army had managed a landing in Barpak, the exact point of the epicenter and the news soon spread that they had taken a team of TV journalists with them. It was no secret, of course, that Indian journalists were given preference and soon the Army airfield near the international airport was filled with TV teams trying to do the same. A chopper trip allowed you more access to remote areas that could not be reached by road but the downside was that you had less time to spend there and therefore less time to find the mandatory human interest story that went beyond just the logistics of the army mission.

Stranded with only rum for supplies

The day after I had arrived in Kathmandu I had put in a request with the Nepal army to let me go on one of their relief and rescue flights. My name figured with a whole bunch of international journalists and after two days of reporting in Kathmandu my turn had come. I travelled in a supply chopper which landed in Sindhupalchok district, another region badly affected, about 6 miles from the Chinese border north east of Kathmandu. Despite my requests for more time there I was told that this was a short mission – the helicopter would drop food supplies in a small village called Narantan and pick up injured persons from the surrounding mountains to bring back to Kathmandu.

In a bizarre twist, while I hurriedly tried to talk to people for my story, the chopper had gathered up several injured people and left me behind! Perhaps they assumed I wanted to stay back or the Nepali army personnel coordinating assumed I was a local in no immediate need of rescue. In any case, it seemed for a while that I was going to be in Narantan for the foreseeable future and I tried to gather some supplies. Amusingly, the village's only shop had run out of water or soft drinks but had liberal amounts of beer and rum! Food, I was told, was shared in the evening between the villagers and the people who had been rescued from the surrounding areas. I was one of them now, they said jokingly.

Places with no name

Luckily another chopper did arrive a couple of hours later though it was much smaller than the one I had come in. I explained the situation to the pilot who smiled and said he could give me a ride to Kathmandu. But first, he said, he had to make a stop at the district's local army camp. As the smaller chopper covered the small distance it allowed me to see the scale of the destruction in this difficult terrain.

The majority of houses, grouped together in small settlements, appeared damaged. I would share the chopper back to Kathmandu with six people in urgent need of medical help including a young girl who had a deep scar across her forehead. Her mother kept clutching her chest and appeared to be coughing blood. I asked an army officer there where they had been rescued from. He pointed to the mountain across where a shiny structure was set among a small group of houses. “Some of these places have no names,” he said.

Rumours that won’t go away

Kathmandu on Thursday and Friday looked a different city than when I arrived. Rumors of a third quake refused to go away but several people had clearly decided it was time to regroup. Public transport had started plying and shops and restaurants began to open. Though the search for survivors still continued in some areas the focus had shifted to transferring relief materials to villages and on clearing the debris from fallen buildings. Thousands had left Kathmandu in days immediately following the quake. Instead of tourists, the hotels were now filling up with people from NGOs and aid organisations who would gradually take over relief work. In the city outside there were tents in the open. People had slowly started moving back to their homes.

Around this time I also began to hear, from local Nepalis, complaints about how the Indian media, specifically television, was overplaying the drama of the earthquake and its aftermath and focusing too much on India's relief efforts. They were grateful of course, for the swift aid that India sent but there is a strain of thought, quite perceptible all over Kathmandu, that India sometimes acts like a Big Brother and its embassy is actually a parallel power centre. The two sentiments combined to create the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia on Sunday.

As for the tremors, they continued and will probably do so for a month. The surreal moments when the earth seems to move beneath you will be a reminder of what had passed.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 1:48:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-free-for-all/article7180752.ece

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