By SELINA NG
I started writing this on the third floor balcony of my hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu, overlooking a sea of buildings in this over-congested capital city of Nepal, serenaded by the honks of infamously impatient motorists.
Having spent nearly three weeks here on a hiking trip last year, I had grown to have a soft spot for this country with its breathtaking natural beauty and hospitable locals. The guides and porters who contributed to our memorable trip had become good friends since.
When the earth shook that fateful Saturday, on April 25, everything fell apart. My Nepalese friends and their families very fortunately survived the quake that killed thousands of their countrymen.
However, nearly two months after the disaster, they were still struggling to come to terms with the effects of the destruction and pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
I felt compelled to help in any small way I could. Donations and fundraising seemed to be the best way to lend a hand, which I duly did. And then an opportunity came knocking: an invitation to be part of NGO Insaf Malaysia’s recce and information-gathering site visit in Nepal for its school rebuilding programme.
Putting aside doubts about safety and appeasing the concerns of family and friends, I jumped at the opportunity to make a bigger impact by sharing the first-hand experience of being at ground zero; it would be one way of keeping Malaysia aware of the plight of Nepal post-disaster.
Sights and sounds at ground zero
My first post-earthquake encounter comes in the form of a bumpy touchdown at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Overstrained by the influx of flights delivering aid during the initial stages of the disaster, the airport’s only runway had sustained damage and is now scarred and uneven.
As our taxi driver adds to the cacophony of horns on the city’s chaotic streets, I finally get to witness the reality of the disaster with my own eyes. And I must say it is different from the images of dramatic destruction the international media feeds us with. Compared to when I was in Kathmandu six months ago, almost everything appears to be the same. Buildings are still standing, with shops open for business. People are walking the dusty streets as usual, as street traders flock to any (now rare) tourist they come across.
What is new is the occasional collapsed and damaged building spotted around the city, piled up bricks waiting to be reused, colourful but depressing-looking tarpaulin tents on pavements, and – the most hidden sign of all – looks of worry and uncertainty on each and every Nepalese face.
I catch up with my local friend to hear his earthquake experience and struggles after the calamity. He was on a bus travelling along the side of a hill when the earth moved. Screaming and panicked, everyone hurried off the bus and ran for their lives when boulders and rocks came tumbling down.
The trauma of his near-death experience has resulted in almost invisible symptoms: he doesn’t mention it but while we talk, the obvious paranoia and the physical jerks in response to loud noises (someone banged a door) are disturbing signs of his still troubled state of mind. I feel sorry for him but, sadly, in Nepal today, his insecurity is only the tip of an iceberg of problems.
Pleas for desperately needed help
The site visit is to the district of Gorkha, the epicentre of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that lost 94% of its structures, which has affected more than 150,000 people living on its mountainous terrain.
On the four-hour journey, our taxi driver Indra whizzes along the winding, two-laned Nepali “highway” (equivalent to kampung roads in Malaysia). Despite several close encounters, I never doubt Indra’s ability to get us safely to our destination – whatever jobs they do, the Nepalese tend to be professional and skilful doing them.
Getting out of Kathmandu and into the countryside reveals higher levels of devastation – and desperation. In Gorkha, we have to go off-road, on motorbikes, to the remote village of Baguwa to gather information about schools that Insaf intends to help rebuild. Like many villages in Nepal, proper road access is virtually nonexistent; villagers rarely travel out, only visiting towns when necessary.
The Nepal disaster shows that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. Most clay and brick houses in villages, proudly handbuilt by the villagers themselves, were, sadly, the biggest killer. With little or no safety precautions against the forces of nature, the villagers’ most prized possessions are now either damaged beyond repair or reduced to piles of useless rubble, some claiming the lives of loved ones along the way.
We come across three roofless and half-crumbled houses on a hillside overlooking the majestic Mount Manaslu that had been occupied by three brothers, their families, and their 77-year-old mother. Now they all crowd into cramped shacks made of zinc scavenged from their destroyed houses.
Have you received any help and what are your plans, I ask them, and the three brothers go off on a tirade about the government and international aid that has yet to reach them, and even if it ever does, it will never be sufficient to rebuild their houses estimated to cost US$5,000 (RM18,000).
I try to assure them, saying that we had attended a meeting at which district authorities met with international NGOs to discuss providing shelter and financial support.
“We know how it works here in Nepal. The people will never get the help and everyone knows where the money goes,” says Chabilal Sunar, one of the brothers.
I don’t have a rebuttal, sadly. So we distribute some provisions and educational toys and move on.
All the time we’re doing that, the brothers’ elderly mother keeps gesturing at me while jabbering away in Nepali, seemingly hoping that this foreigner with a notebook and pen will be able to bring some relief to her family.
Everywhere we go we see tarpaulin tents erected, complete with mattresses and mosquito netting. With new homes nowhere in sight, locals are resorting to strengthening their shacks to make it through the impending monsoon (the season runs from this month to September) and perhaps even the bitter winter cold if no help comes their way by the end of the year.
“Please let me know if you have a job for me in Malaysia,” pleads Ramji Neupane, who works as the chef, service crew, cleaner and porter in our hotel in Gorkha – for doing all that, he earns a meagre US$110 (RM407) a month.
“I am willing to work 16 hours a day like now but my hard work needs to be better compensated to save money for my family,” he says, speaking in English.
Ramji is not the only Nepalese seeking a job abroad.
From taxi drivers to hotel workers to farmers, almost every Nepalese we meet tells the same story of destroyed homes and lives and their struggle to rebuild, something impossible with the low-paying jobs available to them at home.
But amidst all the hardship, one thing still shines through: a fierce resilience that gets the Nepalese through their daily lives, that pushes them to earn that little bit more of income, to reconstruct not only their homes but, ultimately, their lives too.
The writer volunteers with Insaf Malaysia, a nonprofit organisation that provides humanitarian and technical relief in the aftermath of disasters. It is currently focusing on Nepal and rebuilding damaged schools there to help return a sense of normalcy to Nepalese children as soon as possible. To support its cause, visit insafmalaysia.org or search for ‘Insaf Relief’ on Facebook.com. For more information, contact 03-4251 9444 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.