ANU Student's Experience Of The Nepalese Earthquakes

You can assist the people of Nepal affected by the recent earthquakes with donations to a number of organisations listed here, such as Oxfam, Medicins Sans Frontiers, and Care Australia.

It was Saturday the 25th of April 2015, trekking in Briddim, a hill village in the Tamang Heritage Area in Nepal, when the apocalypse seemed to begin.

I was dozing in bed in Briddim when I felt the tremors. Then the whole room began to shake violently. The roof started to collapse, huge sharp rocks broke through the thin ply board and my travelling companion, Tamara and I, began to scream.

Rocks exploded into the room as the walls rocked from side to side. As we tumbled through the door and down the stairs, which moved beneath us, we could hear devastated cries from the village. Everyone was fleeing their houses and running to the safety of the rice fields – but what safety was there? Images of the paddies cracking and falling away filled my head as we watched whole parts of the cliff face across the valley sliding treacherously down. Beneath our own feet the ground tore open in long cracks, the grass was riven, exposing clay. Tamara and I stood holding Nema, the mother of the family who had cared and fed us. Nema sobbed helplessly clutching her 17 month-old daughter, Sylvia, in her arms. All of us were huddled, panicked, watching dirt and trees sliding from the mountainside and thinking the stupidest things, like how the landslides resembled the descent of foam in a glass of Guinness.

Restless Nights and Days

The following moments, hours, days were terrifying. We slept on the ground in fields, under a shelter for cows. Stretched out amidst the hay and cow dung, staring at the mountains in trepidation, feeling the earth tremors, ears straining for landslides. We could never feel safe. When shocks ran through the hills, the fear was palpable. People clutched each other, or jumped up in fear staring wildly about. There isn’t any sense to this; certainty and safety had both disappeared.

Our lips were cracked, the contours of our hands etched thick with dirt. We ate only cold rice and hoped the water we drank was clean enough. We dug through the rubble, trying to salvage what we could for rebuiliding Nema and Dawa’s home. We fretted, unable to contact our families, imagining their terror as they watched the news. But we were alive.
We were so lucky – had we stuck to our original itinerary, and gone to Langtang or had the earthquake happened at night, we would be dead. Yet even then we didn’t know just how incredibly lucky we had been, how many now lay under rubble, how many lives had been destroyed.

During those days six tourists decided to try to walk to safety, unable to bear the uncertainty. The tourists would be walking into landslides, risking their lives. The villagers draped white silk around their necks and blessed them with luck. Their departure seemed like the beginning of a holy pilgrimage, but their faces were filled with tears and dread. I still haven’t heard from them, I don’t know if they made it.

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Caption: The night before, we had been invited to a Monastery to celebrate the life of a recently deceased man. We sang and danced in a circle holding hands, drinking masala chea (spicy milk tea) and roxy (rice wine) with the welcoming villagers. The monastery is now in ruins. I couldn’t help thinking of the thousands of similar funerals there would be in the coming months. Standing before the cracked shrines, I could see collapsed houses, roads, and other crumbled monuments in the distance. From this broken monastery it felt like god had left this place.

The Damage to Briddim

The houses in Briddim were poorly constructed, just stones dry-stacked on stones. Almost every one collapsed. We fear that the rest will fall to the aftershocks. Dawa told me, “We have no homes, no place to live anymore. We are sleeping outside; we will sleep outside for many, many nights I think.” Dawa and Nema, newly married, had borrowed a large sum of money to construct the guesthouse in which we had stayed. Now both home and livelihood was snatched away from them. Of course, the villagers have nothing like insurance, no strong government to help. And no aid has come to Briddim. Not a bag of rice in assistance.

In the days following the quake the villagers ate barely once a day, surviving on whatever they could forage from the debris. Their instinct was to come together and share what little they had. Many now are dead. We heard puja bells and watched as the dead were carried through the village, wrapped in white cloth. I saw old men weeping, a young boy whispering a prayer to himself repeatedly under his breath. The people recited prayers and lit candles for those who perished. Nema’s words come back to me “Nobody will come here to help us. No government, no police, no aid… what to do?” She and her husband fear for the future of Sylvia, their curious and mischievous child.

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Despite their loss, those in Briddim cared for us as if we were honoured guests, sharing the best of their food, drink and blankets at their own expense. Thanks to Dawa and Nema, and everyone in Briddim, we remained safe – thanks to their generosity and kindness I am able to write this in comfort among my friends and family in Australia.

The State of Nepal

I’ve been coming to Nepal regularly, since finishing school in Launceston, Tasmania. Having seen this beautiful country, trekking through rugged arid mountain country high in Muktinath, over the snowy peaks of Thorong La Pass, and through the tropical rainforests around Annapurna. I am in awe of Nepalese culture, which values tradition and spirituality, and Nepalese people, who calmly get on with life without the stress and neurosis pervading western cultures.

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But harsh poverty is on the other side of Nepali smiles, and the other side to the beauty of the mountains and forests is the poverty of slums, shantytowns, and poor hill villages. Nepali people have lived through political conflict, Maoist insurgent terrorism, a bloody 10-year civil war, the violent overthrow of their monarchy and the resultant pitiful economy. Their government has suffered from a long history of corruption, bribery, lax law enforcement, and even now lacks the infrastructure to effectively distribute aid.

Nepal is also one of the world’s poorest countries and ranks 141 of 172 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), with rife malnutrition, high infant and maternal mortality rates and among the world’s lowest literacy (57.3%). Life expectancy is only 67 years on average. Working as a volunteer with an NGO in Kathmandu, Volunteer Initiatives Nepal (VIN) I witnessed the conditions in the shantytowns on the fringe of the city. People there have poor health, are deprived of economic opportunity, and lack food security. Infrastructure is limited, buildings are shoddy, and people live in cramped conditions with inadequate water and little food. Roads, especially to remote villages, are hazardous. All of these factors contributed to the huge death toll, injury toll, and destruction of livelihoods. Aid is therefore needed, not just immediate relief, but in the long term to reduce the scale of future disasters.

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I am incredibly disheartened that meanwhile, the Australian government has savagely slashed our foreign aid budget. Facebook has contributed more to Nepal than Australia. This is beyond immoral; it is unacceptable. The earthquake directly affected over 8 million people, more than a quarter of Nepal’s population. Conservative estimates place the economic loss at $10bn, in an economy of only $19bn that relies heavily on tourism. This means at least one of the central pillars of Nepal’s already weak economy has been shattered; it is unlikely tourists will return for years. And the aftershocks continue.

While the Nepalese tragedy is now fading from the international limelight, the reality of the situation becomes more confronting for the people of Nepal and the need for relief more dire than ever. The next few months will perhaps be the hardest, as homelessness is now rife and the monsoon rain season will soon be upon them. Health authorities predict that children, already acutely malnourished, will be at greater risk of diseases like cholera and diarrhoea infections; floods and more landslides are likely. Australia’s relief efforts need to be more than reactionary and tokenistic – long term support is needed to rebuild Nepal.

In Nepal, life – which has ever been a struggle – is now even more precarious, yet my life was treated as precious. Some lives are deemed more valuable than others, more human. The day a helicopter arrived, especially to save Tamara and myself, I realised how my life was treated as much more valuable than Nepali people. Thousands of Nepali were dead, and were becoming mere numbers in the media, but we – we were named, described, searched for, and prayed for by perhaps thousands.

It was hard, very hard, boarding that helicopter. I felt guilt, regret, and shame for escaping. I was being airlifted out, although I wasn’t starving or badly injured; my Nepali friends had lost everything, had nowhere to go, and in many cases where badly injured or sick. We were helicoptered to a safer village, and from there began the 25 km walk to Kathmandu. We clambered over fallen rocks, where the road had completely fallen away, and passed villages reduced to rubble. On the way Nepali people still greeted us with Namaste and even smiled and showed concerned for us. When we finally arrived in Kathmandu, I saw that the city I had always thought of as a city of temples was now a city of tents.

 

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Caption: Kathmandu Valley before the quake. After the quake we stood amidst debris, cracked ornate wooden carvings, massive brass bell lying among tangled prayer flags, great statues and temples that had stood for over a thousand years, in some cases, reduced to rubble.

The inequity of this situation was driven home again by the treatment I received on my return to Australia. I was flown out of Kathmandu by armed Australian soldiers in a military aircraft, and taken to Bangkok where I was put up in a five star hotel. I felt sickened by the surrounding luxury – here I was, indulging myself at a giant buffet, a buffet including 12 flavours of ice cream, soon to be back in comfort in Australia, while my Nepali friends were sick and near starving, living off what reserves of rice they had left. What was Australia doing for them? While I appreciate the Australian government’s contributions, they do not go nearly far enough to redressing the widespread destruction and need.

What Is To Be Done?

In the short term, Nepal urgently needs clothes, better sanitation supplies, tents and tarpaulins, clean drinking water, food, and medicine. Debris must be removed and bodies recovered. In the long term Nepal will need billions of dollars in aid to rebuild homes, hospitals, and lives. This aid needs to come from international governments and donors. Nepal simply doesn’t have the money. Australia’s government has given only $5 million. As natural disasters become more frequent, catastrophe challenges our abstract ideas of tragedy, and we must respond – or sink into indifference and the cruelty of willed ignorance.

As the helicopter arrived Dawa said to me “A few drops of water make an ocean, so if everybody collects the money Nepalis may survive.” While in Briddim, moving stones and salvaging the things that make a life, trying to rebuild homes with unskilled trekkers, I realized what was needed was financial and infrastructural support. I write this aware of my unique position. I have been given the right to speak. The people of Briddim lack a voice; Dawa and Nema and young Sylvia lack a voice. There voices are absent from the mainstream media. So I’ll speak for them, as best as I am able.

I’ll be doing what I can – donating what money I have, encouraging others to contribute, and pushing the government to act. I hope and pray you will do the same: put pressure on your MP to lend their voice encouraging the government to give more in aid and assistance. Vote compassionately for a greater foreign aid budget.

You can assist with donations to a number of organisations listed on http://www.abc.net.au/appeals/ for the details of organisations such as Oxfam, Medicins Sans Frontiers, and Care Australia.

My travelling companion, in order to aid the village which saved our lives, has started a ‘go fund me’ fundraiser to get support directly to the village of Briddim. Because of the corruption of the Nepali government and the remoteness of the village there is genuine concerned that foreign aid will not reach this village, that it will be forgotten in the chaos that is now Nepal. The Rasuwa region, where Briddim is located, has still gone largely without aid; yet it is one of the most affected districts, along with Dhading, Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Nuwakot, Dolakha, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and Ramechhap. In these more remote and inaccessible areas, the speed of aid delivery is becoming a matter of life or death.

By collecting funds we can ensure that all donations reach the hands of Dawa, who runs a non‐profit organization in the area and is the most trustworthy and capable person for addressing the community’s needs directly. If you feel called to be a part of this effort please donate @ gofund.me/rescuedinlangtang.

Return

I arrived in Australia on Saturday May 2nd, roughly the time the coffins of the executed Australian Bali drug runners arrived. This coincidence spoke strongly to me of man’s inhumanity to man. Indonesia showed no mercy or compassion, killing two reformed men in cold blood and in violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Simultaneously we, a wealthy first world consumerist culture, are failing to help the caring yet impoverished Nepalese people who struggle to mete out an existence and who have just been decimated.

Saturday May 2 was also my birthday. I wrote this the day I got back. What took moments to flatten will take years to rebuild… Will Australia step up to help one of the world’s poorest nations? The best birthday gift I could imagine would be to provide long-term assistance to Nepal, and for Australia to become a global leader in compassion.

 

All images courtesy of the author