Watching a city crumble

AN APOCALYPSE: “Some people said the earthquake was the most frightening event of their lives.” Picture shows Nepalese policemen clearing the debris at Basantapur Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was damaged in the earthquake, in Kathmandu.   | Photo Credit: Bernat Armangue

In the evening of April 25, > the day that the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, I stood on the roof of my house in Kathmandu and looked over the city’s southern suburbs. There was mostly darkness, since the electricity supply had been cut off. Electric light flickered from a few houses that had private sources of power. I counted five small bonfires in the distance, marking the locations of a few of the makeshift campsites where the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley were preparing to spend the night.

Lucky and unlucky populations

I had seen numerous such sites as I’d walked around the southern outskirts of the Valley where my house lies. In the more affluent parts, where the houses are of relatively recent and sturdy construction, such as the area in which I live, the campers had polyurethane mats and plastic chairs, and were living out of their cars. The damage around didn’t seem that severe: boundary walls had collapsed, water tanks had toppled down from rooftops. Some people I spoke to said the earthquake was the most frightening event of their lives, but many also said that given its intensity, they were surprised that the damage had not been more severe.

An old settlement a few kilometres away, consisting mostly of the Valley’s indigenous Newar ethnic group, wasn’t so lucky. The people there farm the surrounding land, have small shops or work in the city as drivers and labourers. Many of the mud and brick houses in the locality have been lived in for generations. I spoke to an acquaintance from the area on the phone. He told me that his house had collapsed completely. When I went to visit him, I saw that numerous old houses in the area has been destroyed or damaged. No one was quite sure just how many people had been crushed underneath the rubble. The survivors were camped out on the grounds of the local school, having constructed tents of plastic sheets and banners advertising ‘Coca Cola’, lying down on mats of straw and collapsed cardboard boxes.

Night approached, and across the city people were still too afraid to enter their houses. The first big earthquake had been followed by numerous aftershocks of varying intensity. By afternoon the town was awash with rumours. “There will be an earthquake of magnitude 7 at 2 p.m.,” people said to each other and everyone awaited it with baited breath. After a few hours, when there had been several shocks of lesser intensity, someone else said that another quake, more intense than the first major one, was due in an hour. “Why is god tormenting us with these repeated tremors?” said a man at a populated campsite. “I’d rather there be one more earthquake as intense as the first and then be granted the certainty that another one will not occur.” The people around him murmured their assent, determined to spend the night under the open sky.

The next morning, I took my car out to get a better sense of the devastation. The injured stood outside hospitals. Vans marked ‘corpse vehicle’ sped to distant parts of the city. Deep cracks spiralled up the walls of the sparkling new apartment towers, homes to the upwardly mobile middle class. In the old city centre of Patan, 16th century temples had turned into mounds of rubble. Large bulldozers tried to clear away the debris of the century-old Dharahara tower. Shopkeepers around the wreckage described the screams of the people who were on the tower and who fell to their deaths when it collapsed.

Although this earthquake had been long anticipated, and millions of dollars must have flowed into Nepal in recent years in the name of ‘disaster relief’, it was striking how ill-prepared the state seemed. The Prime Minister delivered a short speech on the radio promising mobilisation of relief and rehabilitation on a ‘war footing’. But it was another politician from the ruling Nepali Congress party who seemed to have the better measure of truth, when he said that despite its best intentions, there was only so much the government could do, and that he hoped that people across the country would help their neighbours in the meantime. As I drove around the outskirts of the city, I saw a police van moving about trying to distribute tents. As most of the houses had collapsed in the area, people desperately needed tents. But there weren’t enough and the policemen seemed harassed.

Thousands of people had gathered in New Road, a place with crumbly, high buildings on the sides of a narrow street. I was with a few friends, trying to get closer to the square that housed temples and the old palace, the home of kings until the early 20th century. I wanted to see the remains of Kashthamandap, the wooden structure originally built in the 12th century, after which the city of Kathmandu is named. The ground started to shudder, and when I looked up, the buildings were swaying against the sky. The crowd roared with panic, and rushed towards the most open area close by. I stopped at the foot of a prominent statue.

The ‘great calamity’

When the panic subsided, I got back into my car, determined to go straight back home. All of the radio stations were broadcasting news of the earthquake, referring to it as ‘the great calamity’. The chief of the National Earthquake Measurement Centre came on air and said that the shake we had just felt was 6.9 in magnitude, making it the most intense aftershock we had experienced so far. A leader of the Maoist party, speaking from the epicentre of the aftershock, said that the mountains seemed to be exploding behind him and that general sentiment in the area was that the apocalypse had arrived.

The estimated death tally on the night of April 25 was 800. The next evening it was around 2,500. At time of writing this piece on April 27, it was 3,500. Many countries have pledged aid, and many have sent disaster response teams, which are still gaining their bearings and figuring out how best to operate. As of now, no one has been able to reach the people, let alone count the dead and injured, in the villages in the hills, where it is said that entire settlements have been razed to the ground.

(Aditya Adhikari is the author of The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution.)

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 5:15:44 AM |

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