In Nepal’s Far-Flung Villages, the Suffering Continues
May 6, 2015
In the remote village of Shyam Sathu in the hills of Sindhupalchok, I came upon a solitary young man in his mid-twenties – I’ll call him Arun – wrapped in a humble white garment, head shaven, and barefoot, staring into oblivion towards the high Himalayas. The village folk told me that his wife and two children had died in the earthquake. He was lost, alone, and devastated – overwhelmed by impermanence. Hindus see the hair as an adornment: shaving it symbolises removing impurities and ultimately letting go of one’s own ego and attachment. But for Arun, the gesture meant nothing other than the beginning of the end.
In the late afternoon of April 30, five days after the earthquake, I accompanied Tara Bhandari, a social worker and local partner of The Asia Foundation, to Sindhupalchok district, one of the worst-affected areas. Through the Foundation’s emergency relief fund, we had obtained a medium-sized truck loaded with tarps for temporary shelter and 80 bags of rice, the staple of Nepali diets, each bag containing 66 pounds, to distribute to the neediest and most marginalized – those with no reliable source of income. We reached Barabishe village late in the evening. Literally the entire population was living in tents that had sprung up in fields around the village since the earthquake. We joined one of the encampments and slept that night under the open sky.
The next day started early with weak, black tea and a meeting with local partners where we identified the victims most in need – a hillside community of indigenous Thami in a village across the river, and a Tamang community on the northern outskirts of Barabishe. That afternoon we distributed many tarps and 55 bags of rice – one bag for every two families, or about 12 to 15 people. With 25 bags left, we pushed on to several adjoining villages, distributing rice and tarps late into the night. Overall, we provided rice and temporary shelter for 160 families. Our strategy was to provide enough rice to last a family 10 days, time for them to build a temporary shelter near their homes and salvage whatever they could. We also urged people to salvage the tin roofs from their homes to build stronger shelters for the coming monsoon season.
The impending monsoons are now the biggest threat to the mountain districts of Nepal, bringing the prospect of heavy landslides. The monsoons’ effects are bound to be dreadful, perhaps more catastrophic than the earthquake itself. Most endangered are communities in the hillside hamlets and villages of the middle and upper Himalayas, extending to the Everest region in the east, the Annapurna region west of Kathmandu valley, and Tibet in the north. This corridor is dotted with villages, large and small, that have already borne the highest casualties and the worst destruction. Villagers there are living in the midst of the wreckage and tragedy, trying to create temporary shelters, trying to salvage what they can to start a new life, even as the aftershocks have continued, further unsettling already weakened hillsides.
Our first day in Barabishe we learned from wandering survivors that no help had reached the northern corridor of Sindhupalchok, an area stretching about 20 kilometers along the Friendship Highway connecting Kathmandu to Lhasa, Tibet. Roads were blocked by multiple landslides and huge rockslides, so we decided to hike to survey the situation. We walked northward from Barabishe for about three hours. The “highway” there is basically just a narrow road that hugs a steep hillside, with a sheer drop on the other side to the Class III and IV rapids of the Boti Koshi River.
The situation was appalling. In some places we walked precariously along narrow roads blocked with earth and large boulders. A pungent, nauseating smell of decaying bodies filled the areas where the landslides had buried their victims. On some very narrow stretches of pathway we saw hands, hair, and body parts sticking out of the rubble. In places, only one person at a time dared to cross the debris, running gingerly for 50 to 80 meters for fear that the earth could give way with the next rush of wind. People prayed before they ran. We saw jeeps and buses buried in the rubble-strewn landscape. The stench of decaying bodies was overpowering.
As we walked north, we came across a mass migration of displaced, hungry, and frightened people walking south, carrying a few possessions on their backs. They looked like they had seen ghosts. They told us that no help had reached their villages, leaving survivors stranded between life and death for an entire week. Their homes destroyed, they had buried or cremated their loved ones and were now heading south in search of food and some semblance of civilization and humanity.
In the two days and nights of our travels we saw entire villages flattened to rubble. Perhaps 80 percent of the houses in Sindhupalchok are completely destroyed. Others have enormous cracks, and it would be suicidal to inhabit them.
On May 2, we made a trip to Shyam Sathu, a cluster of steep hillside villages nine kilometers north of Barabishe. This is the village where we met Arun, grieving the demise of his wife and two children. We spent five hours walking through three villages. All had been literally flattened. Talking to locals, we counted 80 deaths. Some told shocking and heartbreaking stories. A village church was holding Saturday worship for a congregation of about 120 people when the quake struck. The church collapsed, and seventeen people died. One young member of the church, who happened to be trained in medicine and had a small pharmacy in Barabishe, jumped from the church balcony into a freshly tilled field 25 meters below and survived without a scratch. He then managed, with the help of his father and others, to pull his mother and six other survivors from the wreckage. Early that evening he ran to his dispensary in Barabishe and gathered medicine and supplies. Since then he has single-handedly treated more than 45 injured victims.
We met a distraught mother in her forties who had spent three days and nights outside her collapsed stone house, trying to save her 18-year-old son who was trapped in the wreckage. She heard him calling out for three days, his voice growing weaker and weaker. The last word she heard him say was “water.”
Tenzing Paljor is a photographer who works with The Asia Foundation. View a slideshow with more images. He can be reached through The Asia Foundation’s Nepal country representative George Varughese at [email protected]. Varughese recently took part in a webinar (audio recording available) on Nepal’s long-term recovery needs. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation. All photos: Tenzing Paljor.
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