There is no pushing or shoving, snatching or arguing when the 25-odd children queue up behind one another to accept their thick green blankets. Reaching the front of the orderly line, each puts their hands together in a prayer-like pose, gently bows, looks me in the eye and humbly says, ‘Namaste’, (the usual greeting in Nepal).
Around 50 mothers and elderly folk sit around the sides of the meeting room – a wall-less square of scaffolding pipes shaded by a thick tarpaulin roof – and watch the scene unfold, silently wondering if this time there may be something, anything, for them. Perhaps a blanket to ward off the severe winter chill or shoes to keep out the rain? Jumpers, coats, soap? When you’ve nothing, everything is a gift gratefully accepted.
Welcome to Camp Hope, a makeshift village set up by Sangita Shrestha – a 40-something hotelier – and her team, on an old football pitch near the Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. It’s not made up of brick houses, and it doesn’t have electricity at the flick of a switch or running water at the turn of a tap. This is one square kilometre of waste ground, converted into a swathe of tents in just days to house 331 people brought by rescue helicopters from the mountain region of Sindhupalchowk, following the catastrophic earthquake that shook Nepal last April. Around 90 per cent of the villages here, less than 100km from Kathmandu, were obliterated.
With homes high up in the mountains, many called the place heaven. Here, people of different communities – including Hindus and Buddhists – followed their own traditions, rituals and customs. They tended their land, grew crops, and welcomed tourists who came to trek in the beautiful mountains. Life was uncomplicated, peaceful and happy.
At 11.56am on April 25, all that changed. An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale killed more than 8,000 people, injured over 23,000, rendered thousands homeless and left a trail of destruction Nepal had never seen before.
For those whose physical lives remained intact, there was no time to pack a bag or prepare for what was to come. With the ground shaking beneath them, there was nowhere for these people to go until they were herded into the belly of a massive UN helicopter and flown to Kathmandu.
Here they met Sangita, whose life changed completely after the earthquake, like it did for countless others.
A mother of two, her family owns Dwarika’s Group of Hotels and Resorts, which runs the prestigious 86-room Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu as well as Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel.
I meet Sangita over a cup of jasmine tea in the tranquil oasis of Dwarika’s ornamental courtyard in the capital. It seems like a world away from the chaotic and crumbling city that lies beyond the hotel’s metal gates.
Outside, the crowds can be heard chanting David Beckham’s name – he has just checked into the historic hotel following a charitable kick-around in the nearby village of Bhaktapur as part of his work as a Unicef ambassador. From the intermittent roars, you can tell each time he passes a window.
‘Tell him to wave,’ instructs Sangita to one of her staff.
The daughter of the hotel’s founder and a historian, she has led a privileged life, but when the quake hit the country, she knew exactly what was required of her.
In the ensuing days, Dwarika’s became the headquarters for several humanitarian and rescue agencies as more and more people started flooding into the capital. ‘Official rescue agencies could only do so much and they couldn’t move quick enough,’ Sangita explains. ‘We were not prepared to just stand by. So, using our own funds and generous donations, the idea of Camp Hope came into being.’
A local youth club offered its football ground and an appeal to the US Agency for International Development prompted the provision of heavy-duty plastic sheeting to create shelters.
Today, Camp Hope consists of around 26 tents – 21 people to each tent with others accommodating kitchens (from where three meals a day are served to residents), and study, prayer and medical check-up areas. The last one attends to the elderly, the pregnant, and even newborns.
Through a water-boring system, villagers can pump for clean water, while a drainage and irrigation system has been built too.
Around 90 children attend school here daily, while adults are given literacy classes in the camp’s study tent by volunteers and charity workers and taught vocational skills. The women learn sewing, weaving and knitting, while menfolk learn how to rebuild their homes.
In an attempt to keep the residents entertained, inspired and motivated, Saturday mornings are for dance classes, while talent contests and football matches take place regularly. Religious holidays are also keenly celebrated across the camp.
From the moment it was set up, Sangita passed on her responsibilities at the hotel to her family to manage it full-time. Naturally, there are many advantages to having a world-class hotelier step in to lead a shelter like this.
‘We always have a lot of resources at our disposal, and I am lucky to have my hotel’s team of engineers and technicians whom I can call on to help maintain the camp,’ says Sangita.
And she runs a tight ship.
The fact that she is in total control is clear during a visit to the camp. Thanks to the generosity of the parent and student community of Dubai’s Jebel Ali Primary School, I have more than 100 pairs of good-as-new shoes, over 50 blankets and piles of winter clothes with me.
On entering the camp, the children come running up to meet Sangita. Stretching her arms out wide she attempts to hug as many as she can. She knows each one of them by name and I notice how she lovingly reprimands a boy for not wearing his coat.
She introduces me to the little ones, and with smiles that stretch from ear to ear, the children usher me through the gates accompanied by a long chorus of namastes. The women ceremoniously hand me a warm cooked potato. It’s an unusual gift, but they are so proud to be able to give me something that I humbly accept it.
Sangita asks three girls – Nima, Manisha and Suhana (all from the Sherpa tribe) – to show me around while she unpacks the stuff I’ve got in the meeting tent.
These 11-year-olds speak perfect English and dutifully guide me across the makeshift community. En route, I simply cannot resist cuddling Kevin, a chubby six-month-old, before I meet a young mother who has just given birth to a baby boy. Although she is unable to communicate with me, the joy shows in her face as she proudly presents her first-born.
I then meet the women sitting in their tents, knitting, sewing and weaving – all fine-tuning their skills so that some day soon they can make products ready for sale.
When we arrive at the meeting tent, the shoes I’ve brought are all on show and the blankets and clothes have been piled up, ready for distribution. You can see the residents eagerly looking on, desperate to dive into the candy store. But they await Sangita’s instructions.
Ensuring that the most needy are seen to first, when allocating this shipment, the men are her priority. ‘They always get forgotten,’ says Sangita, while testing the correct fit of a pair of trainers for the eldest man in the camp.
Then it’s the kids’ turn, and they line up to graciously receive blankets.
Sangita eyes a doll and whispers to me: ‘That little girl lost both her parents. I think she’ll like this.’
One woman takes a jumper for her daughter. ‘No, please put that back, she already has a jacket,’ says Sangita.
Every item is logged to ensure no one is overlooked. This is tough love – but it’s true, committed love.
There’s order, there are rules and most importantly there is a long-term strategy.
‘The final goal is to help rebuild their homes so these people can return to the mountains,’ she says.
Using art as a medium, Sangita encourages the children to express the trauma of what has happened to them, while also encouraging them to dream and hope. I go through the pictures that they’ve drawn, indicating what their dream village would look like. The aim is to build 231 homes across 14 villages. But they have to be safe and capable of withstanding the forces of nature, which, sadly, these people are so well-accustomed to.
Once geologists finish assessing the locations of the safest areas on which to build, the ground can be prepared and the houses – which have been designed by structural engineers – can be constructed.
The men of the villages will help with construction as well as focus on preparing the land, rebuilding the terraces, planting and growing crops.
‘These people are very proud, which, apart from the easing of the financial cost, is another reason why this must be an owner-driven project,’ says Sangita.
To this end, she has enrolled many of the men in vocational courses to teach them skills such as masonry, carpentry, plumbing and welding.
‘There is an acute shortage of skills among the rural population, which are required to rebuild Nepal,’ she says.
‘When each course is complete, participants receive a certificate from the government-run programme documenting their completion of a level. This is so wonderful not only because this certificate is recognised by 169 countries, but also because the sense of accomplishment they will all feel will be enormous. It will give them the power to help themselves.’
Fuelled by private donations, work is due to start on the three-year project as soon as weather permits. Yet, as if the situation were not dire enough, Nepal is now reeling under the strain of political tension with India. The consequence is that the import of fuel, medicines, many foods and construction materials is choked.
The Nepalese are having to wait an unprecedented five days for petrol, and the queues snake for miles upon miles.
The country of 28 million people has ground to a halt – hospitals are turning away patients, public transport is overloaded and businesses are collapsing. Until supplies and fuel can get into the country, work on rebuilding homes in the mountains for the residents of Camp Hope is at a standstill.
Many commentators are of the opinion that this blockage of Nepal’s economy has outstripped the damage by the earthquake.
Tourism has been virtually obliterated. In Bhaktapur – one of Nepal’s most popular historic and tourist sites – the gentle tap, tap, tap of chisels in the 16th-century Vatsala Durga Temple can be heard as archaeologists try to salvage what they can from this Unesco World Heritage Site that’s been reduced to pieces. The salesmen on Thamel’s tourist strip have taken the fun out of bargaining, in their eagerness to get whatever rupees they can for their yak wool sweaters, colourful hippy bags and North Fake (read North Face) trekking gear.
Cabbies, however, are not budging when it comes to price. With fuel as good and expensive as liquid gold, every kilometre must be worth their while. Expect to pay triple for journeys, even if they’re in beat-up Maruti Suzuki cars.
Escape from this mayhem in the manicured Garden of Dreams in Thamel. Here, a handful of adventurous backpackers, tourists and well-heeled locals find refuge in which to read, sleep, and, as the park name says, dream of a day when this beautiful country and its people once again find their feet, when confidence is restored and homes are rebuilt.
This Garden of Dreams, I am soon to discover while sitting on a bench in the rose garden, is operated by Dwarika’s Group. Thus, once again, I am reminded of Sangita who is working tirelessly to make the dreams of her large extended family living in Camp Hope a reality.