Twelve-year-old Param Thapa peers out of the tent that is now home to him, his parents and sister in Lalitpur, a suburb of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. A steady drizzle that has been coming down for over eight hours has left the park where his and about 20 other tents are pitched, a slushy marsh. Cold and shivering in the chill breeze that is beginning to blow in from the Himalayas, Param wraps himself in one of the two blankets that the family has to stay warm.
He looks forlornly at their small two-room house, which was partially destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country three weeks ago, and mumbles, ‘I wish we could go back there soon.’
But he knows they can’t because the now dilapidated house could give way if there is another tremor, and come crashing down on their heads. The family barely escaped the ‘big one’ and nobody is willing to take a risk. To make matters worse, Param has heard that more tremors could occur at any time.
Ominously, a white taxi, a loudspeaker hitched to its roof, trundles down the road. ‘All those who are in houses please move out and remain in open areas. An earthquake is about to strike,’ a voice booms out in Nepali. It’s nearing 6pm and in the fading daylight, the few people who had braved the aftershocks to return to their homes, grab whatever they can and rush out.
Little do they know that the taxi announcements are fake and made by gangs who will return to the deserted houses under cover of darkness to loot them. ‘The government is trying hard to stop such acts and has announced that anyone exploiting the situation for illegal purposes will be fined or imprisoned,’ says a police officer. ‘We caught some thieves last week. But there are so many of them, it’s hard to control.’
To make matters worse, criminal networks have started infiltrating rescue teams and under the guise of helping poor people in rural communities, are luring away girls to be trafficked. Tens of thousands of young women are at risk of being targeted by these criminals who are believed to be operating in remote areas, according to reports in international media. Weeks after the devastating earthquake left much of Nepal in a pile of rubble, many families still sleep outside, waiting for the international aid that was promised to them. They are homeless, hungry and scared, as continued aftershocks rock the country daily.
‘I’m scared,’ says Param. ‘Every time there is a minor tremble [aftershock], I think it’s the end. I haven’t seen my friends and some of my neighbours. I don’t know if they are even alive.’
As soon as it gets dark in Kathmandu, bright campfires line the usually dark roads, surrounded by people roasting corn on the cob over the flames and warming their hands as temperatures at night don’t rise higher than 10C.
While some stores have reopened, their shelves are half empty. ‘Even if we have the money, there is nothing to buy and no shops that are standing,’ says Vinod Bahadur, a tour guide who lost his home and his entire family to the quake and is now living in a tent with seven strangers.
In Ghyangphedi, a five-hour drive from the capital Kathmandu, a dozen barefoot children sit under a makeshift shelter that’s too crowded for people to sleep in. Heavy rains are wreaking havoc in the region where hundreds of people are still unaccounted for. The earthquake has made access to them almost impossible, especially as the road to Ghyangphedi is blocked by boulders that have slipped on to it from the mountains during the tremors.
Aid vehicles are yet to arrive here but by the time they do, deliveries will be low as the villages on the way need help, too.
‘Last week, the government supplied a litre of water for each of us, but no food,’ grumbles Daya Ram, a frustrated father of four. ‘Everything seems to be going to Gorkha [a region that suffered the brunt of the quake] but other villages and even parts of Kathmandu are forgotten.’
He is not alone pleading for help. Hundreds of men, women and children are desperate for food and clean water. Almost all the houses in this area have collapsed completely, leaving families homeless even as heavy rains are threatening to come down in the next few weeks. Riots are starting to escalate across the country, as hungry and angry people violently protest and even steal rice or lentils from neighbours.
‘Sourcing drinking water will continue to be the biggest problem in Nepal,’ explains Fiona Seaman, 41, a Scottish doctor who was on a three-month trek in the country when the earthquake struck. ‘Decaying bodies are a risk for water contamination, which could cause infections or other epidemics such as typhoid.’
Fiona now helps at a local hospital offering her skills to the stricken people.
The situation in the villages closer to the capital is not much better. The village of Bagmati, a 20-minute ride from Kathmandu and one of the more severely affected areas, is struggling to emerge from ruin. Ancient and poorly constructed red brick houses that once lined the unpaved roads are hardly recognisable. Many have collapsed. Naresh Baga, a four-year-old, holds up a small bowl half filled with stale rice. Wearing dirty clothes and with no shoes to protect his feet, he and his family have been sleeping in the rain for the past several days.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ says his father Maitrey, a worker at a local brick factory. Although he has some money there is no food to buy because all the shops have been destroyed. ‘My family is starving and there is nothing I can do.’
Nearby, people are queuing up beside a government water truck to fill their empty jars and buckets. Just outside the village, in the lush green hills and scenic rice plantations, the ruins of a brick kiln, where most of the sandy, low-quality brick that’s used to build modern-day Nepal is produced, stand as a stark reminder of the earthquake. The furnace that soared about 40m over the small valley collapsed when the earth moved, leaving many workers injured and now also unemployed.
Ram Bahadur, 38, and his wife and two daughters are lucky to have escaped the collapsing furnace. His 10-year-old daughter Laxmi, who also used to work in the factory, sits in a tent staring at her former workplace.
‘I want to go to school and learn things,’ she says quietly. ‘But Baa [Nepali, for father] could not afford it and needs my help to earn more money for the family. But now even our only source of income has gone.’ She has not received her last salary. The factory owner refused to pay any of his workers after the disaster. The family has no savings and struggles to get by. Their only food comes from donations, often from foreigners who buy it in the city, where more is still available, and bring it to the villages.
Laxmi is one of almost 30,000 children who were working up to 16 hours a day in hazardous environments earning no more than a monthly salary of Rs8,000 (Dh289).
‘I was inside our hut when the earthquake struck,’ Laxmi says, still trembling with fear. ‘I ran outside but fell down because the earth was moving so violently. Then seconds later our home collapsed. I started screaming for my three-year-old little sister Samita but couldn’t see her anywhere.’
It was only about four hours later that she was found near a friend’s hut that had also been destroyed. ‘The earthquake was the worst day of my life,’ Laxmi says.
In the past week, the government has started clean-up campaigns, mainly executed by the army. Near the Bagmati River, soldiers are searching through the remains of Kalmochan Mahadev Temple. Wild monkeys used to climb carefree on the building’s ancient walls, leaving children giggling and attracting tourists. What’s left now is a large pile of bricks and shattered wooden carvings. Not far from here, near the tourist district of Thamel, is an even bigger construction site at the ruins of Kathmandu’s Bhimsen Tower that loomed over the city at almost 62m. When it fell, it buried more than 200 people.
The stench in the area is unbearable and attracts thousands of flies that circle over the piles of brick, covering the site in a black insect carpet, while soldiers try to remove the rubble. ‘We have to assume that more dead people are buried here,’ a policeman explains. Nearby, two men sit in front of their crushed house. They have lost it all and have nothing left to do. Their faces are marked by defeat and pain. The older one has lost his son-in-law. Just like most people in Kathmandu, he burned the body of his relative at Pashupati, a cremation site by the river, where, according to Hindu tradition, bodies are burned.
Hundreds of families brought their deceased family members to Pashupati. The body of a young girl, dressed in a bright sari, is lying on a pile of wood and covered with fresh straw. The family surrounds the pyre but the mother, overcome with emotion and pain, collapses as her daughter’s body is slowly consumed by flames filling the humid air with dark black smoke that makes it difficult to breathe.
Most cannot fathom what happened and are too unstable to get back to daily life. Cars are slowly returning to the usually busy hustle of the city, but schools, offices and some shops remain closed. At hospitals, even the doctors who are scared of the aftershocks cannot afford to take a day off because of the number of victims who are being brought in.
Dr Suman Adhikari at Patan Hospital says, ‘The staff are afraid and doctors don’t want to perform surgeries. But we have to save lives.’ Adhikari hasn’t been able to take off even a few hours and patients are still crowded outside the clinic, where they sleep on thin mattresses, awaiting treatment.
Four-year-old Banita waits for a cast to be put on her shattered left leg. She has been in hospital for over a week, but the doctors are too busy trying to save lives to treat her. The government will cover the treatment’s cost, but it will be minimal.
More than 1,000 people have died in this hospital and every afternoon, the hospital sticks a long list of casualties on the wall near the clinic’s gate. Worried relatives often receive the news this way – not in privacy, but in the midst of a busy street, next to taxis, scooters and rubbish-covered roads.
Meanwhile survivors are starving. ‘We are hungry and have no clean water, even in the middle of Kathmandu,’ says an angry father, who is sleeping in a tent near St Xavier’s School, in the city. ‘The government has failed us.’
Next to the school stands the Surya Children Welfare Service Centre, an orphanage badly damaged and now uninhabitable. The 20 children, aged between 10 months and 15 years, sleep in a big orange tent in the field, made out of football goal posts and tarpaulin. Luckily none of them were killed in the quake although some of them were hurt.
Namita KC, a 40-something woman who has run the orphanage by herself since 2007, is frustrated and helpless. ‘We are struggling for much-needed water or food,’ she says.
Dressed in a pink and red shalwar kameez, the typical Nepali dress, it’s clear from her tired eyes that the last week has been terrible. A 10-month-old baby girl sits on her leg, crying for milk. ‘Wait baby, I’ll get you something to drink,’ she says, not knowing where she is going to get anything.
The tent is hot and sticky, the floor still damp from the night’s rain. There is maybe enough space for 10 people, but twice as many are squeezed inside, sleeping closely together and keeping each other warm. The monsoon rains are fast approaching and Namita is at a loss for what to do next.
‘The housing market is competitive and expensive, especially with 20 children. A new house would cost about Rs45,000 in rent, an amount far out of reach. We’ve survived the earthquake, but I don’t know how we will manage the future.’
Strangers have dropped off food, but even this is tough to handle, as neighbours get jealous and start arguments.
In April the Nepali government admitted that it wasn’t prepared enough for an earthquake, but no one expected this catastrophe to happen just weeks after the statement.
Nepal, with its limited organised aid, has needed individuals to step up and help. ‘People go out to the villages to see where they can help with clean up, food distribution or rebuilding,’ an American expat says. He has raised $10,000 (Dh36,731) to help victims and already hired construction workers to start rebuilding houses. Others have initiated similar do-it-yourself projects.
In Jawalakhel, a grandmother, is roasting corn over an open fire in the evening cold. Behind a fallen brick wall, her house lies destroyed and her family sleeps on mats between the ruins. An empty water tank that once stood on the house’s roof now lies between the bricks and broken glass. The smell of food makes the children hungry, but they won’t be eating much tonight.
A white diplomat’s car with a blue licence plate passes by; the inside looks modern and warm. In defeated Kathmandu, these two worlds will continue to collide. And while earthquake survivors continue to wait for much-needed supplies, Laxmi, the young labourer at the brick kiln, continues to live in fear of tomorrow, uncertain if there will be food or water.