Hamlets of rubble

As Nepal struggles to come to terms with the magnitude of the earthquake that struck on the morning of April 25, Basharat Peer captures the mixture of despair and hope on the ground.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:30 pm IST

Published - May 02, 2015 11:52 pm IST

On the sunny morning of April 25, Dinesh Lamichhane, a 36-year-old businessman, stood outside his in-laws’ house on the slope of a mountain in Sakura village in Gorkha district in Western Nepal. His wife’s younger sister was getting married to a young man from his own village, ten kilometres away. Five minutes before noon, Lamichhane, who runs a travel agency and a hotel in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, posed with his wife and her sister, the bride, for a selfie.

As they posed, the geological stress building up in the fragile Himalayas, as the crustal plate carrying India hits the Central Asian crust, (it moves up a few centimetres every year), was released through an earthquake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter in Barpat village, around 20 kilometres from the site of the wedding. “We heard a very loud sound, like a big bomb blast, and the earth seemed to jump,” Lamichhane recalled. They were tossed onto the grassy ground. People wailed, “Ram! Ram!” A thick, brown cloud of dust enveloped them.

They huddled together and waited for the tremors to pass. A few minutes later, Lamichhane rose and looked around. Almost every house—stone and mud structures— in the village of 70 families had collapsed. His in-laws’ house, a better built one, still stood. It had large cracks in it. His two-year-old daughter was sleeping inside. Lamichhane ran in and brought her out. Forty-five minutes later, a second series of tremors ground the house to debris.

Lamichhane found the groom and his relatives crying in a circle on the road near the destroyed village market. He assembled the bridal party in a clearing. The priest was asked to perform a hurried wedding ceremony. “We dug out a little food from the debris of the house and fed the bride and the groom,” he recalled.

A fear-filled journey back to the groom’s Mangaltar village, seven kilometres away, began in a bus. The road was full of gashes, almost every house along the way had collapsed, as if an ambidextrous giant had struck everything with a pickaxe and a hammer. “We reached our village in two hours,” said Lamichhane. Most of the 200 houses in the village had fallen; the others had wide cracks. “Our home was gone,” he sighed.

Lamichhane and the villagers were scared of aftershocks. They made open-air beds of bundles of hay on the banks of the Burugandhi River that runs past the village. “The bridge, the groom, all of us slept on hay under the open sky. Another series of aftershocks woke them up at 5.00 am. In the next few hours, the village counted and cremated its dead: four children, a man, and a woman.

After graduating from high school, Lamichhane, whose father had died at an early age, had arrived in Kathmandu with a hundred rupees his mother had given him. He had sold snacks, pens, worked as a waiter in a restaurant, then found a job in the kitchen at the Osho Ashram in Kathmandu. After several years at the ashram, the enterprising Lamichhane built a network of contacts, learnt English and Russian, and restarted life as a travel agent. His business, focused on Western trekkers, had boomed. Three years ago, he rented a building in the Thamel tourist district of Kathmandu and started a modest hotel.

“In the afternoon, I got a call from my manager. My hotel was safe but the solar heating system on the roof had broken,” he said. It cost about three lakh rupees. He felt compelled to reach Kathmandu. The road connecting large parts of Gorkha district and Kathmandu was broken. A friend in Kathmandu’s helicopter business, which mostly ferries or rescues trekkers from high mountain bases, took his call and sent him a mini-chopper. “It cost around 60,000 rupees.” Half an hour later, Lamichhane, his family, and two villagers with grievous injuries landed in Kathmandu airport.

Havoc everywhere

Photo: AP

On his arrival, the extent of devastation sunk in. Thousands of Indians, Chinese, and Western workers and visitors had converged on the airport, for flights out of Nepal. Kathmandu, a city of three million people, was a canvas of anxious, grieving faces walking about aimlessly, staring from footpaths, camping in every open space. The great quake had sundered large swathes of Kathmandu. Four days after the earthquake, the Nepal government announced that the number of dead had crossed 5,000. Around 1,200 people had been killed in the Sindhupalchowk district among the high mountains by the Tibet border, a three-hour drive from the capital; around 1,100 persons had been killed in Kathmandu district. More than 10,000 were injured.

Thousands of the injured from the city and adjoining rural areas were rushed to hospitals in Kathmandu. In the days after the earthquake, Nepalese Army, Indian Air Force, and private helicopters began rescue operations to some of the badly affected villages, returning with the injured with immediate need of surgeries and medical care. More than 1,200 injured people were treated at Bir Hospital, one of the oldest in the city, in the first four days after the quake. In the chaotic, dim-lit trauma centre of the hospital, I met Sudesh Dahal, an athletic surgeon in his early thirties. Dr. Dahal had arrived at the hospital within an hour of the earthquake. The surgeons worked in non-stop shifts of thirty-six hours, took twelve-hour breaks, and then returned for another thirty-six hour shifts. Most surgeries involved amputations, lobotomies, and neurosurgical interventions for head injuries. “My team performed six surgeries, which lasted around three hours each,” he said. Five of his patients survived. “An elderly man who had perforations in his intestines died a day after the surgery.”

Natural disasters often overwhelm and inundate with statistics. Yet conversations in the emergency ward, that no man’s land between hope and despair, life and death, are reminders of the struggles and dreams that form a life. Shakuntula Duwedi, a 21-year-old woman covered by a white sheet, lay semi-conscious on a stretcher in a corner of the emergency ward. Her eyelids and her mouth were bloated a dark shade of purple. A gash ran across her neck. Her father, Sunendra Duwadi, a weather-beaten farmer in his fifties, held the stretcher, waiting for the results of her CT scan. He had travelled six hours after the earthquake from Senkhani village in Dhaling district in central Nepal to reach his daughter. He had lost his house in the quake, like many others in his village. He had left his wife, mother, and two other children behind in a makeshift tent in the fields. The telephone networks, as in most villages in Nepal, had collapsed.

After studying till Class 12 in the village school, Shakuntula had moved to Kathmandu, doing a variety of part-time jobs that paid for her rented room and her German language classes. After completing her second year of language studies, she had been hoping for a placement with a high-end hotel or a tour company. “She was in her hostel when the wall fell on her,” Duwedi said. Her friends had moved her to a private hospital, where she was largely ignored. Her father moved her to Bir hospital. “I don’t know what the doctors will say,” he spoke haltingly. “She is my hope.”

Outside Kathmandu

Photo: AP

About an hour away, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, hope was rare in Sankhu area. Kathmandu expanded rapidly into the agricultural land surrounding it through the decade-long war between the Maoist rebels and government forces from 1996 to 2006, when the Maoists agreed to a ceasefire and joined the national government. Nepal’s violent decade had rendered life in the countryside precarious, creating a massive wave of migration to the city, which provided relative safety. After the ceasefire, economic imperatives continued pushing people to the city in search of better lives. Kathmandu valley, a high urban density area, has an annual population growth rate of 6.5 per cent, according to Geo Hazards, an NGO working on earthquake risk and preparedness. The journey between Kathmandu and Sankhu is a journey through contiguous settlements where the urban and the rural have morphed into one.

To walk through Sankhu is to walk through pulverized lanes and broken homes. The stoic residents hoped for a last glance of their dead kin, hoped to avoid smelling their bodies putrefy under debris. Around 80 bodies were recovered in Sankhu; many remained trapped five days after the earthquake. An Israeli rescue team with sniffer dogs rushed past a lane where several homes had fallen. “Can you tell them to use the dogs to locate my daughter?” Mangala Devi, a 46-year-old housewife, implored a reporter. The Israelis had already disappeared from sight. Her daughter, a student at a college in Kathmandu, had walked across the street to meet a friend, when a house collapsed over her. A few volunteers digging with shovels were searching for her.

Chinese teams

A little ahead, past more broken homes, a crowd gathered around the remains of Shyam Dongal’s home. A short, wiry, 24-year-old mechanic, Dongal was driving home when the tremors tossed him off his motorcycle. When he left home, his father, sister, brother-in-law, and a niece had sat down for lunch on the fourth floor of their home. When he returned, he saw a mound of debris and the corpse of his sister hanging from a wooden beam. He and his friends retrieved her body. The next morning, Nepalese soldiers helped them retrieve the corpses of his father and brother-in-law. Four days later, his eight-year-old niece was still trapped. A group of Nepalese soldiers and rescuers from China’s largest civilian aid group, Blue Sky Rescue, were trying to retrieve her body. Wang Heng Ji, a rescue specialist with a prizefighter’s build, covered in dust and sweat, quietly gave directions to his fellow volunteers and the Nepalese Army men to dig at a certain point in the rubble. “I began working in rescue during the Sichuan earthquake,” said Heng Ji, who works as an advertising executive at Guizhou television network in Guiyang, the capital of south-western China’s Guizhou province. “The house has sunk seven feet deep and the digging is slow,” Heng Ji, who is one of the 600 Chinese relief workers in Nepal, explained. “We have one more room to clear out.”

Most of the collapsed were old, brick and mud homes. Some more recently built ones were mostly homes of people who couldn’t afford cement or reinforced concrete. Driving about Kathmandu, a bowl-shaped valley, somewhat like Srinagar, I wondered at the wisdom of apartment blocks with more than five or six floors. “The government did not control the Valley’s rapid development; in the absence of any building code, nearly all construction took place without consideration of seismic force concerns,” a report on the city’s earthquake risk by Geo Hazards had pointed out two weeks before the earthquake.

A series of white tower blocks in the Pepsi Cola neighbourhood in Kathmandu (named after an old Pepsi factory), stood out in the distance. A year and a half old, the Sun City apartment complex is 17 floors high. In its courtyard, around a dozen families camped on the floor of a construction site. The tower had braved the quake but apartments as high as the tenth floor had developed cracks. Cement had come off the walls; several inch-wide cracks had developed in an apartment owned by Sarita Dahal, a woman in her late fifties. “The building swung like a pendulum,” Dahal said. “I couldn’t even stand.” Six days after the quake, she is scared of sleeping in her apartment. The builder has reassured families like hers of its safety but Dahal wondered,” Is it really safe to live here now?”

The lapses in governmental regulations had exacted its cost on the city. But the government was utterly incapacitated in the rural areas of Nepal. Hundreds of villages were out of reach; phone connectivity was non-existent or patchy. The Arniko highway from Nepal towards Tibet goes through high mountains. A two-hour drive from the city, the highway forks into two parts, one to Tibet, which is blocked by landslides, and one to Sindhupalchowk, a vast, poor, mountainous district, which has had the largest number of deaths. In Bimbrin, a village of 150 families in Sindhupalchowk, a long row of houses along the road had been flattened; mounds of debris dotted the slope of its mountain. Around half the homes were gone. “We have nothing left,” Ira Devi Sreshta, a housewife in her late forties, lamented. She had dug through the rubble of her house and filled a bucket with a mixture of millet, earth, and stones. “We have no other food. There is some rice and I will clean this.” Shrestha and other villagers had been waiting for six days for help from the government. “Nobody came here,” she said. They lived under makeshift structures made of broken tin roofs supported by pieces of wood. “We need tarpaulins, rice, and dal.”

Every second house seemed to have been affected in the small town of Chautara, the headquarters of the district. On a plateau on top of a hill, several government buildings were still intact. A few medical teams had set up tents in a field. Hundreds of villagers had trekked to the town to find succor and waited outside the office of the Chief Development Officer, the highest administrative official. Krishna Gyanwali, the CDO, a distraught man, was repeatedly trying his phone, which refused to work. His own house had fallen; his mother had been injured. Although the road from Kathmandu to Chautara was intact, according to Gyanwali, most of the other roads linking the villages to the town were cut off. “We have no communication with around 200 villages,” Gyanwali said. “Most of the houses in the district have collapsed. We need bulldozers, tents, food supplies.” Six sorties by Indian Air Force choppers were all the food supplies he received; he fed the hundreds of hungry outside his office from a communal kitchen. Supplies could have been moved easily from Kathmandu but the official aid process in Nepal seemed hobbled by a mixture of incompetence and shock. More than 6,600 people have been confirmed dead. Around four lakh people are in need of shelter after having lost their homes, but the government has been able to distribute a mere 26,000 tents, its Minister of Information and Communications, Minendra Rijai admitted at a press conference in Kathmandu. “I have very little to give to people,” Gyanwali, the Sindhupalchowk CDO, said. “I can’t even call the higher officials.”

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