No Tents to Brave the Trembling Earth and Naked Sky

Soldiers carry fly the injured from distant villages in Dolakha to Charikot. [Photo: Aditya Adhikari]

Soldiers carry fly the injured from distant villages in Dolakha to Charikot. [Photo: Aditya Adhikari]

Destruction comes in many forms. Some houses have turned to mounds of stone. Only the tin roofs perched on top indicate that these had recently been inhabited dwellings. There is a mangled mass of steel rod and brick, with a battered motorcycle implausibly thrown upon the pile. In another place large concrete slabs that had once served as the roof of a house and dividers between its four stories rest on top of each other like fallen dominoes.

It is 13 May, the day after a second major earthquake. We are on the road to Dolakha, the district at its epicentre. At numerous places along the way, large shards of rock that could easily have crushed a person to death have come clattering down onto the highway. But the road has been rendered passable by Nepal and Chinese army teams.

There are a few jeeps belonging to the government and international relief agencies on the road. But most of the vehicles we see are public buses. They are so packed that each one of them has dozens of people sitting precariously on the roof. These buses are not headed to safer areas further south, as one might assume. Rather, they are headed straight to the villages that have suffered the most devastation. The young men and women on them are heading home from the cities both in Nepal and abroad where they had been studying or working. It is unclear whether they will be able to return to their colleges or jobs. It seems likely that many of them will find it difficult to resume their lives. For the time being, however, they are more concerned with meeting their parents and, if they can, helping to construct small tin and bamboo shelters for their families.

At Mude, we meet Chandra Mohan Singh, a government soil conservation officer deputed as Secretary of Dudhpokhari Village Development Committee (VDC) in the aftermath of the earthquake. The water supply in Dudhpokhari has been damaged, and food supplies buried. But what he needs desperately are tents, since all the houses in the area have collapsed and everyone there is sleeping in the open. He asks us if we can take him to Charikot, the district capital, where he hopes to get 450 tents from the local administration.

We drop him off at Charikot and take a look around the town. The centre of activity is the Nepal Army base. Helicopters land every few minutes, carrying in the injured from remote villages. The town’s senior officials are all assembled near the helipad, and they turn away and shield their mouths with their hands to protect themselves from the great clouds of dust that are stirred up each time a helicopter lands.

The Local Development Officer tells us that the administration had assessed the district’s needs, accumulated some supplies and started distributing relief. But the second earthquake compelled them to temporarily stop their efforts. The army is once again occupied with search and rescue instead. Many more houses collapsed after the second quake and the administration needs to again conduct assessments of damage and needs.

Local officials are themselves traumatised and in need of relief. Their own homes and offices are uninhabitable. Many of their families have been calling them, speaking of the damage to their houses, urging the officials to come home, threatening that they now have to choose between their families or their jobs. One official says that some employees are threatening to revolt if they are not soon given tents and other relief supplies. For the time being, however, they will have to wait. The government’s priorities are to help the most severely affected. And they don’t even have enough to help the most needy.

In Sindhupalchok, a neighbouring district also badly hit, we saw that many volunteer groups and NGOs had delivered relief supplies, at least to villages along the main road. Dolakha, in contrast, has received very little relief from such sources. It has received less attention in the media and is further away from Kathmandu.

At the Charikot bus park, we do see a large truck from which a small team from the  Nepalese chamber of commerce and industry is trying to distribute tents. But there is a clamor all around. The crowd gathered has received so little, and people are unconvinced they will get a tent if they quietly stand in line. So people try to push to the front and shout to be heard. The police is unable to maintain order and distribution is stalled.

We return to Sindhupalchok in the evening and stop at what used to be a rafting lodge by the side of the Sunkoshi river. There are a few employees about and they complain how business has been nonexistent for the second year in a row. This year, the earthquake has made the few Koreans who had come out for a rafting adventure head back to Kathmandu. Last year, a major landslide upstream had obliterated the entire settlement of Lamosangu. We see fishermen sitting idly by the river. They have stopped fishing, repulsed by the carcasses of buffaloes and cows that haven’t stopped floating down the river since the first earthquake.

Around 9 pm at night, I receive a call from Chandra Mohan Singh, the VDC secretary we met in Dolakha. “Charikot is in total chaos,” he says. “I was unable to find any tents. Could you perhaps help me get some? I just can’t go back to Dudhpokhari empty handed.”

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