ASHAHRU: HOPES OF NEPAL

On the morning of the 25th of April, 2015, an earthquake registered at 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Gorkha, Nepal, leaving over 9000 people dead and more than 23, 000 casualties, making this the worst natural disaster in Nepal's history. However, the worst was not just over yet. 17 days later after the first earthquake had hit, the country was shocked by a second earthquake registering a 7.3 magnitude, adding 153 lives loss to the overall death toll. This opened the floodgates of international aids as many countries began to fly in their own humanitarian disaster relief teams. All of which were focused heavily on the physical reconstruction so as to allow the Nepalese people to return to their normal lives as quickly as possible. Today, the 25th of April 2016 marks exactly one year since the catastrophic disaster. To remember the loved ones lost on this day and to celebrate the courage of the people who are still piecing back together their lives, AHSHARU: Hopes of Nepal is launched today to remind us of the adversities that they have been through and the continuous need for a long term support for any disaster-stricken country.

May their stories never wither together with the headlines.



When we first arrived in the country, it dawned upon us immediately that the lives of the Nepalese people are very much like the traditional buildings that are being supported by both the steel and wooden pillars. The buildings symbolises their precarious lives while the pillars, on the other hand, represents their self-reliance and determination. In the immediate post-earthquake period, casualty recovery was the first and most urgent priority, but now that the phase is over, the focus has shifted to debris management. This is important because without clearing the debris first, it is almost impossible for any aid to reach the people especially in the isolated regions.

Within the tourism sector, the conservation of world heritage sites is right on top of the priority list. Our local fixer, Debendra, from the Department of Archeology, shared with us that the top priority right now is to immediately repair and prevent heritage sites that are partially damaged from being completely damaged. While for the ones that were brought down to earth in totality, the necessary measurements have already been taken for restoration work to begin. This systematic work in preserving the country's rich cultural heritage is very important given the limited resources that his team has.

Even though physically, some parts of the country are still left in ruins, the reconstruction efforts so far have been very organised. There are distributions points being set up by various International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOS) to distribute the tools needed to rebuild the homes. However, not everyone has a home that can still be repaired.

The Royal Nepal Golf Club, at Thunikhel, was home to more than 2000 people, at its peak during the post-earthquake period. While many families have returned to their homes, there are still some who are homeless and waiting for further help. The barren golf course strangely does not feel like a camp for the Internally Displaced People (IDP) when we first entered it.

These families who have been living on this field for many months continues to have hopes for a new roof above their heads that they can call their own again. But even when their material possessions are reduced to just a bag of clothes and a stove to call a kitchen, they remained largely optimistic about their future. It was difficult to communicate with them but that did not stop us from being welcomed into their “homes” and lives.

For us to better understand what they have lost, Manga Lal, 89 year old, a survivor of the two major Nepal earthquakes in 1934 and 2015 has decided to show us where his house used to stand. What was previously a five-storey building is now brought down to only the ground floor. Just like many other buildings across the country, the houses here are built on bricks and dried mud - neither of which are designed to withstand an earthquake.

Rabin Raya, another survivor of the earthquake who was also Manga Lal’s neighbour, was buried under the debris of his home on that very fateful day. He shared with us that after he tried to get up many times, he still could not as the weight of the rubbles on his back was simply too heavy. He resigned to fate by only crying and wailing out for help, hoping that someone would soon come and find him. Thankfully for him, his neighbours knew that he was in his home when the building collapsed on him and they were quick to rescue him out soon after.

 

On the same morning, we followed Manga Lal and Rabin to where they are living at for the past three months. This refugee camp next to Bakhtapur Durbar Square, once housed over 3000 people in the immediate post-earthquake period. Among the 325 people left in the tents now, are a group of elderly that no longer has any families for support. Left alone in a world they could no longer recognize, these elderlies have no choice but to rely on the goodwill of their neighbours for food and long term shelter reallocation.

While the numbers may appear to have dropped significantly, overcrowding remains to be a persistent issue in refugee camps like these that are scattered all over Nepal. With 11 people fitting into a single tent and over 200 people living in the bigger ones without any dividers at all, concerns for the spread of disease came to the forefront when the monsoon season started in mid July. What makes the situation more vulnerable in these areas are the significant number of elders living in them until today who still do not have any access to a proper sanitation and sewage system.

Even though the majority of homeless people are now living in tents, there are still areas that need further aid such as more accommodation space and proper sanitation. As for the people who decided to return to their homes, the journey of reconstruction ahead might appear daunting to them as international aid for tools and materials are slow to reach the remote areas but even then, these challenges do not appear to have broken down their spirit at all. 

The next location that we visited was Sankhu, 1800m above the sea level and only 12km away from the epicentre. These geographical factors created a strange juxtaposition for us as we see so much beauty in the nature surrounding the area but only to find just as much destruction within this small town. 

Even though the lives of the Nepalese people have been shaken down to bits and ruins, the Nepalese are still able to muster great mental strength to assert their ownership over their the reconstruction efforts without heavily relying on international aid. 

(See documentary on the interview with Shree Khrisna.)

As we spend more time talking to the locals in the area, we were brought to a deeper understanding of the sheer resilience and grit of the Nepalese character. Heroic stories of courage soon began to unveil themselves to us where locals who were already trapped under the massive debris or those who ran into a collapsing building to save the lives of others around them.  Shree Krishna himself who saved his son after 4 hours of digging is also a social worker who is actively involved in organising local efforts to rebuild their homes and lives again.

Shree Krishna and his son infront of their former home.

Despite the grim reality of destruction everywhere around us, it is still evidently clear and this should be to all over the world too, that the Nepalese people, especially those in Sankhu area, are not merely waiting for donations and international aid to come to them. Their livelihood may have been shattered down to rubbles and debris but their spirit and strength continues to carry them on as they rebuild their homes and livelihoods from scratch again.

As we set on our journey back for the day, we could not help but to reflect on all that we have seen so far. The attitude of the people who chose not to give up despite the biggest calamity having just unleashed its wrath to the nation almost caught us off guard. But we also began to wonder too that while these people have lost a roof above their head or a source of employment, but could still slowly rebuild their lives, how are the rest who had fared far worse coping with their own recovery? 

There were many people we met that came from all across Nepal and shared one thing in common; the grief and painful experience of losing family members to the earthquake. One of them, Kanchan, had agreed to talk to us about her story.

Kanchan in a hospital office.

"Hello. My name is Kanchan. I live in Bhaktapur. I am now voluntarily working in this hospital.
What is your experience in the earthquake - where were you and what were you doing?
In that particular period I used to work in another office, a finance company. After the morning, I had been out of the house and went to the office. When I had just reached the office, that earthquake occurred. Immediately, I know my house is not so good, and I saw many houses damaged along the way. So, I started crying.
I tried to get back to my house immediately, but all the streets were blocked by debris. I had nowhere to go. When I finally reach my house, nobody allowed me to go nearer to my house. They said it is dangerous, and many young men were helping out there. My parents were there too.
When was the last time you saw your husband and children on that day?
I have not reached my house until 2pm. I asked around, “Where are my children and my husband?” Nobody replied me. I kept crying.
Somebody was telling me that my husband and my babies were dead. Somebody later said they were at the Durbar area and they were okay. I wanted to go and find them, and milk my small baby. But people stopped me and told me that I didn’t have to go and they would manage everything.
Around 5pm, I know my husband and my children were under the debris. One of my uncles told me that my husband is placed under one big wood of the house, and the uncle was searching for some tools to cut the wood and rescue the husband. At about 6pm, only my husband and my daughter were brought to me. My small baby was still missing.
When they were first brought to me, my husband was still alive and my daughter (9 years old) was dead. My husband was taken to the hospital. I thought the other missing baby (20 months) was taken under the table or the bed and he might still be alive.
Finally the small baby was found and he was dead as well. Both of my kids were brought to the funeral place where I get to see them. The rest of the family were telling me that my husband was okay in the hospital and only the two children died. They asked for my permission and started the funeral process. At 4pm the next day, the body of my husband was brought to the same funeral place too.
When was the last time you saw your husband and your kids alive?
At around 11:30am, my family asked me not to go to the office, as it was an off day as well. But I insisted to go, and I went out of her house at 11:30am.
What was your last conversation with your husband?
My husband came back home from outside at around 11am. When we finished eating, I wanted to go outside to work. As the small baby was crying, my husband asked me not to go to work, or take the baby with me. So I took the baby with me. The moment I walked out out of the house, the grandparents came here and said that I shouldn’t take her to the working place. They said they would take care of the baby. So I left the baby with them and went to the office alone.
How does it feel to be the only one surviving the earthquake?
(Long silence) Wherever I go, I feel lonely.
What is your future plan?
(Silence) I want to move away from Bhaktapur to forget the sad stories here."

While efforts are still being shored up to rebuild the homes and livelihoods of the people, it remains to be seen if the state will pay more attention to the trauma victims too. However, the wider community are still attentive to the needs of these affected victims. The Horn Festival, which aims to remember and honour the dead is held annually, and we were fortunate enough to witness it in Patan. 

This year’s foot procession would particularly hold a special meaning for the Nepalese people as it coincides with the year that the earthquake had struck. As part of the procession, the locals would travel to all the stupas across the city by foot and this can easily take up more than 12 hours. However, since most of the stupas are still under maintenance right now, they have decided to halve the walking time so that they can cover 4 principal Ashoka stupas that are located in the four corners of the city. Inhabitants of Lalitpur are obliged to participate if they have lost a relative during the preceding year. Those who are particularly going through austerities for the merit of their deceased loved ones wear sacking over their near-naked bodies to protect them as they prostrate themselves before each shrine that they visit. It is believed that this helps their dead ones rest in peace. Despite the seriousness of this parade, connected as it is to death and tragedy, it is carried on with a carnival atmosphere. People gather to observe the fun and give a helping hand to the participants of this holy parade. Since helping the participants earns religious merit for oneself even if one does not join the procession, people gather at intersections to offer assistance to the devotees. 

The locals that we have talked to offered us a greater insight on how it helps them recover from their own mental traumas. They said that such cultural outlets reinforces certain traditional beliefs in them and one of which is, “It comes and it goes,” referring to the natural disaster. For the Nepalese people, none of them had wanted or invited the disaster into their lives and that is why they can accept their loss with great strength and calmness.

Just like the earthquake that comes and go, the pain that they are feeling will eventually recede too.