Scenes from the Nepal Earthquake: One Writer Surveys the Devastation
Scenes from the Nepal Earthquake: One Writer Surveys the Devastation
Text: Amie Ferris-Rotman
May 21, 2015
Text: Amie Ferris-Rotman
May 21, 2015
Photo: Amie Ferris Rotman
Photo: Amie Ferris Rotman
I had just landed in Doha—my stopover en route to Kathmandu—when a friend in California texted me to ask if I was OK. Confused, I turned to Twitter, where #NepalEarthquake was trending. I rushed to my gate.
Some Nepalis were speaking on their phones, others were trying to watch footage on their laptops. Still, the mood was relatively calm. “Is the flight canceled?” I asked the Qatar Airways attendant. “No, why would it be?” She wasn’t the only who hadn’t heard— next to
me sat a row of elegantly dressed Nepali women, excitedly comparing duty-free perfumes and nail polishes.
The first signs of alarm came from a pack of international trekkers, in their windproof nylon. “They say it’s a big one,” a French man announced to his group. Airline staff switched on a large television by our gate, and soon the images of collapsed houses and bridges snapped in half produced gasps of terror. “Capital . . . my capital,” said the man next to me, a stout figure in a shiny suit, his face marked by
anguish. My insides crumpled. I managed to say how sorry I was.
A freelance journalist based in London, I wasn’t meant to be covering a humanitarian disaster. I was one of eleven fellows from around the world selected by the D.C.-based International Reporting Project to write about health and development issues in Nepal, an impoverished nation that rarely gets much attention in the world press. The IRP had planned an extensive, ten-day schedule for us, and I had been looking forward to it for months. I’d read everything I
could on Nepal, especially on Nepali women’s rights. But as the scale of the damage from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake began to reveal itself—and it was catastrophic— I received word from the IRP organizers that the program was canceled, and that I could turn back if so desired. Or, if I could get into the country, I could spend the days reporting on the earthquake instead.
Hours passed, with wildly varying information arriving via Twitter: the airport in Kathmandu was shut to all flights; the airport was open
to military flights only; the airport was damaged; the airport was untouched. Eventually my flight was canceled, but miraculously I was able to board another the next day. As we flew over New Delhi, the captain told us a powerful aftershock—this time measuring 6.7— had struck Nepal, and we had to turn back. The passenger next to me, a mild-mannered man in wire-rimmed glasses and a dress shirt, wrung his hands in exasperation. It turned out he was a government worker at Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was returning from a business trip
to Pakistan. He had not been able to reach his wife and their three-year-old daughter in the past 24 hours. “It’s been a tough, long day,” he told me.
And then, forty minutes later, we had been cleared again for Kathmandu. My neighbor high-fived me. (I emailed him several days later: his wife and daughter survived unhurt.) We circled the area at 15,000 feet for almost two hours. Craning my neck to get the first glimpse of the damage, I could make out only a smattering of lights. This city of 1 million was in
It was just after 8:00 p.m. when we landed. Everyone in the plane clapped and cheered in jubilation. Climbing down the rickety airstair onto the tarmac, I was surrounded by matte-finished torsos of gray C-130 military jets, familiar to me as I had been a Reuters correspondent in Afghanistan for two years. One had its back door swung open; inside, stony-faced Indian soldiers sat in rows, the first sign of outside help that would flood the country in coming days.
The granite floor of the arrivals hall was cracked, the telltale zig-zag I would soon recognize everywhere. Stashes of foreign aid —fluorescent lights, sacks of rice—were piled about. A few ceiling bulbs burned by generator. Money changing booths, indoor taxi stands, and souvenir shops were abandoned. A hand-scrawled sign that read UNITED NATIONS THIS WAY was taped by the exit.
Stepping outside I encountered a scene of utter chaos. Travelers—almost all of them foreign—had set up makeshift campsites, a few with
actual tents, most supine on the grass. In the darkness, some held flashlights as they tied bags of luggage together, a precaution against theft. I managed to get a car to take me to the hotel booked by the program, and during the drive, a soft rain began to fall. By our headlights, I could make out hundreds, even thousands of people huddled in the streets. With powerful aftershocks still being felt, they were either too scared to return home, or had no home to go to.
Inside the lobby of the Yak & Yeti
hotel, one of Kathmandu’s finest, guests were strewn across the floors, wrapped in duvets from their rooms. When I tried to check in, the concierge handed me a stained blanket and pillow, and said, “Good luck finding a space.”
All across Kathmandu, structures were judged unsafe to sleep in. The extent of the damage was still being assessed; large buildings would later collapse. Quite a few people were sleeping in the hotel’s garden, exposed to the rain. My British phone had a fleeting connection, and I managed to send
a text message to my sister in London, telling her I was fine and could she please email my parents and boyfriend, letting them know. As soon as I received her confirmation, the signal disappeared.
Loath to face the elements, I found a free spot in the corner of the restaurant, near a large group of foreign, whiskey-drinking tattoo artists. I eventually managed to doze off, only to be jolted awake at 4:00 a.m. by a stampede of people heading out the back door. This would be the first of many large
tremors I would feel over the next ten days.
Adrenaline is a powerful hormone. When I covered Taliban offensives in Kabul, I snapped into action, my heart racing and mind full of story ideas. The same happened to me here. Kathmandu reminded me of my Kabul days in many ways: high levels of personal stress and limited telephone and Internet access, combined with the near-constant presence of human suffering. Even my mother saw similarities. “Please let us know how you are,” she wrote to me in
an email from Ohio, where she is a professor. “When you’re in a warzone I am used to waking up to an email letting me know you are OK.”
My reporting took me to Kathmandu’s largest, open-air Hindu crematorium, within the sprawling, centuries-old Pashupatinath Temple, and I found it overflowing with bodies, and workers there struggling to cope. I watched a father carry his five-year-old son, delicately wrapped in white cloth, to an area by the nearby riverbank where
other victims were being cremated on blazing open fires, as is the Hindu custom. Thick, acrid smoke made it difficult to breathe, and I was affronted by the instantly recognizable smell of burning flesh. Under the heat, my face mask became stifling, and nearly impossible to talk through, but it meant less smoke and a fainter smell of death.
More than 8,500 people have been killed by the earthquake and its many aftershocks. Whole villages have been flattened and several of the Kathmandu Valley’s UNESCO
World Heritage sites—most built by indigenous peoples of the Newar kingdom between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries—had been destroyed. Nepal is a fiercely proud nation that largely escaped British imperial rule and maintained a rare religious harmony for centuries. It was agonizing to see its ancient temples and squares, with intricate wooden latticework and handsome stone gods, permanently ruined. I met volunteers who had organized themselves to guard open piles of treasure. They were my age, men in their thirties, who had grown up
and played among the temples as children. Their unostentatious duty to protect the debris of centuries was a poignant sign of things to come.
I became fixated on stories of women who had given birth in the moments before, during, and after the earthquake. Some “earthquake babies,” as I came to think of them, had been delivered outside, under leaking canopies, with no medicine on hand apart from Paracetamol. I met one woman, a 27-year-old named Ranjita Shrestha, who had an emergency
caesarean hours before the first tremor. Shrestha calmly described holding her daughter for the first time as the ground shook beneath them. She’d been numb from the waist down and had panicked at the thought of her baby being swallowed up.
Shrestha and I spoke outside the city’s Paropakar maternity hospital, surrounded by new mothers breastfeeding their tiny swaddled infants. Despite the trauma they’d been through, the mood was tranquil. Nature continues on, I thought, in spite of
everything. All around us were jacarandas in full bloom, explosions of magnificent purple I could not tear my eyes from.
Halfway through my trip I moved to another hotel, staffed by Tibetan refugees. (Nepal has many.) Electricity there became an elusive friend, and, as is often the case in developing countries, my phone’s 3G worked better than the Internet. I navigated the dusty yet elegant capital through Google Maps and exorbitantly overpriced taxis. (In the aftermath of the quake, taxi and café rates shot up
dramatically.) I also hired two wonderful local fixers, who helped me set up meetings. Both were enthusiastic young men with a penchant for film-making, and though we got along well, I saw that the work became increasingly painful for them. Even as I wrote about the tragedies of their people, they knew I was foreigner who would soon leave.
Kathmandu is an ancient city straddling a fault line with India, and it was due for another earthquake. (In January 1934, a quake measuring around 8.1 on
the Richter scale killed 10,700 people here.) April’s timing could not have been more inopportune. Still reeling from a devastating civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels, who launched a violent campaign in 1996 after the collapse of a short-lived Communist government, Nepal had been mired in political deadlock, its leaders at loggerheads deciding a new constitution. The interim constitution, not yet in place, was designed to give women and ethnic minorities more rights. Before the earthquake, there was
hope that a deal was finally in the cards.
Now there are other, more obvious priorities: the predicted minimum of $10 billion needed to rebuild. And while thousands of foreign aid workers rushed into Nepal, from China, Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere, there were complaints that the government was ill-equipped to handle these gestures of help. In the days that followed, hundreds protested and blocked roads, arguing that food and aid were not being distributed properly, even as the airport’s tiny
runway suffered damage from large aid-laden jets like the C-130s and had to close. Several U.S.-based medical relief teams were staying at my hotel, and during their breakfast meetings, they vented fresh frustration at bureaucratic mismanagement.
I visited Sindhupalchok, an area northeast of Kathmandu that was reportedly hit the hardest, with more than 2,000 deaths. It was only 25 miles away, but getting there required hours of traversing through thick mud in a jeep. The situation in the countryside was
dire, and made the capital itself seem like a well-adjusted oasis. The air was heavy with the stench of death. Bare-footed residents picked through the debris of what had been their homes, hoping to salvage anything of value. Everywhere lay signs of life interrupted: cooking pots with oil and potatoes inside; a handbag full of makeup; newly completed homework dated April 24.
As I spoke to villagers, it soon became clear how vulnerable they were, especially children who had been orphaned or lost a parent.
Schools were destroyed, and while boys and young men will have a better chance of finding employment, girls are at risk of being married off early, against their will. I kept seeing girls and women huddled together, finding refuge in numbers. Rights groups now fear more of these girls will be sold to brothels in neighboring India and elsewhere overseas, or into enforced domestic work in countries such as Qatar, where they already suffer from notorious human rights abuses at the hands of their employers.
The large, sprawling camps that mushroomed across the country in the aftermath of the quake quickly became prime targets for traffickers.
It was easy to see why. The tent cities I visited were chaotic, unorganized, unpoliced, and fetid. Nepali women’s rights activists described incidents of girls not eating or drinking in order to avoid visiting the large, open-pit toilets, out of fear that they would be harassed or raped.
After ten days, I left with a heavy
heart, and back in London, I found I couldn’t shake Nepal from my mind. Absolutely everyone in the country has been affected, including the prime minister and Nepal’s former royal family, who slept in—it must be said—well-furnished tents in their Kathmandu garden.
On May 12, a 7.3-magnitude quake hit, and I frantically emailed the fixers I worked with to see if they were OK. One of them, Sunir, quickly replied: “It was sickening to have to go through that again, but, yes—at least we’re alive.”
Thakur was more stoic: “I am safe. It was a strong and long one though.”
I could hear in their voices that indefatigable, infectious will to persevere, a quality I’d encountered over and over again. In particular I kept thinking back to a baby I met outside the maternity hospital in Kathmandu, only hours old, with a full head of hair. His fifteen-year-old sister Bandana, a high-spirited girl with a thick black ponytail, was gently stroking the bridge of his nose and whispering into his ear. "What are
you telling him?” I asked. “To not worry anymore,” she said, with the gruff reassurance of an older sibling. “The worst part of his life is over.”
Article originally published by Vogue. To view original, click here.
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