After the Earth’s Violent Sway, What Remains is Dejection

Credit: IANS

Credit: IANS

Chautara: This morning, on 12 May, I drove out from Kathmandu intending to go to Chautara, Sindhupalchok district. Sindhupalchok was badly hit by the earthquake of 25 April and I hoped to get a better sense of the destruction in the area and the needs of the affected people. At around 1pm, when we were close to Chautara, a motorcycle lost balance and skidded close to our car. We realised that another big earthquake had struck only when we felt the earth swaying violently. Clouds of dust rose from a number of sites both ahead and behind us. When we got out of the car we heard roars of agony from an ox that had been crushed in the collapsed remnants of a house right behind our car.

Stopping by the side of the road, we encountered a tired and hungry group of policemen who said they had been caught petrified amidst tall, swaying trees. One of them from Nepal’s southern plains said he would rather quit the police force than be deployed in the earthquake-hit hill regions. Two women joined us. They had jumped off the roof of a bus when they felt the earth shake, and one of them had a wound on her leg.

As we offered them some of the bread and water we had with us, the policemen recounted how they had spent the past week digging out corpses from the rubble of destroyed houses. “I’ve gotten so used to corpses that I no longer care whether I’ve pulled out a person or a goat,” one of them said. “But at night I feel that ghosts are walking around.”

There was much talk of corpses as we travelled around Sindhupalchok later that day. In Chautara, we met Gopal Shrestha, whose parents had been crushed to death when their stone and mud house had collapsed in the first earthquake on 25 April. He had managed to recover their bodies and bury them but was consumed with guilt that he hadn’t managed to creamte then in accordance with Hindu ritual. Many others would have felt the same, but this was no time for scruples. A Nepal Army soldier spoke of how his team had uncovered around a dozen corpses buried in a shallow grave that they had discovered when the stench around their camp had become unbearable. They had then reburied the corpses in a deeper pit, along with the charred remains of a human body and the carcass of a buffalo that they had found floating down the Sunkoshi river.

The earthquake of 12 May was the most intense of hundreds of aftershocks that have struck Nepal since the first quake of 25 April. At least 9 people were killed in Chautara when houses that had survived the first quake collapsed in the second major one. So far, the death toll in Sindhupalchok, a district with a population of around 287000, has risen to over 3000.

But the dead are dead and the living are naturally more concerned about the living. Many people, while appreciating the hard work of the police and army, complained that the government had hardly sent any relief. They said that the bulk of aid they had received so far was from voluntary organizations that had formed and deployed after the earthquake. At least along the main road, people had received adequate food supplies. What they sorely lacked was shelter.  Most families had received sheets of tarpaulin. But these had developed large holes in the rain and hail that had fallen relentlessly over the last three nights. “If we had tents like these,” said a man pointing wistfully to a tent provided by the Chinese government to a local police post, “we wouldn’t have any problem for at least 3 months”.

Pradip Giri of Chautara was in his forties but already had grandchildren. His was a family of fourteen and they had all spent the past two weeks under a single sheet of tarpaulin. It was evident that he had been a man of some prosperity. But his clothes had blackened and he had the air of someone who had drastically fallen in the social hierarchy. Unaccustomed to receiving handouts, he received the food and mosquito net we gave him with a grimace.

Rattled by the earthquake and overwhelmed with the devastation around us, we decided not to spend the night in Chautara as we had initially planned. We drove down to the base of a hill and encountered a group of Canadian army personnel who had spent the day clearing landslides and providing medical aid. The Canadians offered us a tent to spend the night and we are now among them. There is total darkness around us. We have joined the small contingent of Nepal Army personnel here in the hope that their company can help alleviate our sombre mood. But as determined as these soldiers are, a sense of demoralization is apparent. One soldier is telling us how his house in the relatively close by district of Tanahun, which had developed cracks in the 25 April quake, was flattened today. His wife, child and parents are sleeping outside and he is desperate to go home, but does not know when he will get a few days off to go see them.

Aditya Adhikari is the author of The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution.

Note: In an earlier version of this story, the word ‘bury’ was used instead of ‘cremate’. Since some Hindu communities, under some circumstances, do bury their dead, The Wire desk was reluctant to correct what might have been an error without first cross-checking with the author, who was not immediately contactable.