11 May 2015

After the Earthquake in Nepal :: I Went for Friendship

I just returned from a week in Nepal and my heart is heavy, broken over the earthquake devastation I witnessed; but I am inspired by the local response of the Nepali people in caring for one another. A response nothing short of remarkable compared to any that I’ve seen over the past two decades.

There is so much pain in Nepal. No one in the country is left untouched by the disaster. Everyone has either lost a loved one or her or his home, or has a friend or family member who has.

I think it’s fair to say that in some ways the situation in Nepal may not be as bad as people think, but truth be told it is far worse than any of us can imagine.

KTM photo by Nikole Lim

photo credit Nikole Lim

Like many of us, I awoke to a barrage of notifications and messages about Nepal’s recent earthquake on Saturday morning April 25.

I was in Boston for a conference, just two days earlier one of the presenters of that conference actually suggested that “Syria needs an earthquake” as an attempt to highlight the tragic under-reporting on the refugee crisis in that country, implying the response to such an earthquake would open the world’s compassion and attention to the suffering of the Syrians. I think people generally understood the point he was trying to make, those victimized and displaced by the civil war are among the world’s most forgotten people, but 36 hours after his comments they seemed grossly insensitive—a tone-deaf suggestion given what was suddenly unfolding in Nepal.

Gautham and Rekha Rai photo credit Nikole Lim

Gautham and Rekha making momos, a traditional Tibetan dumpling, for the children. photo credit: Nikole Lim

Since 1993 I have visited Nepal 20 times. Over the past 20 years I’ve helped support Gautham and Rekha Rai who run a locally registered, grassroots initiative that cares for young Nepali girls who are survivors of physical abuse and violence. My work in Kathmandu has been among the most satisfying of my life, but it’s the relationships I have with local friends in the city that are some of my most cherished gifts.

As soon as I had heard the news of the earthquake I immediately started messaging many of my Nepali friends. Simultaneously, because of my connections to Nepal, I began receiving a constant stream of requests from acquaintances and strangers, most of them the typical sort of questions, but many were impossible asks. Lots of people asked for recommendations of reputable organizations to donate to, or if I knew of volunteer opportunities for people to serve the relief efforts. I even got requests from friends-of-friends needing urgent evacuations from Nepal or searching for missing loved ones who had been trekking in the Himalayas when the earthquake struck.

Thankfully, within hours of the earthquake, I started hearing from friends passing along the good news they were okay, but many of their friends and neighbors were not. As a few of us exchanged messages it quickly became apparent I would travel to Nepal to lend support and solidarity to those who have shown me so much love over the past 2 decades—and how could I not?

In my nearly 25 years involved in humanitarian work I’ve been to some pretty difficult spots: I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone at the height of conflict over blood diamonds when 60% of the country was still controlled by the rebels; during NATO’s bombing of Serbia I was in the Tent City of Kosovar refugees, hearing first hand accounts of the unspeakable atrocities committed against the Kosovar women; and just 8 days after the massive tsunami in December 2006, I was on the ground in Sri Lanka laying the groundwork for a 10-month relief project to help rebuild homes destroyed in the catastrophe.

But travelling to Nepal felt different. My heart was aching for those I cared—particularly Gautham and Rekha and their home full of children.

Karauna Ghar Girls photo credit Nikole Lim

photo credit Nikole Lim

From Boston I returned to my home in Omaha for a short 40 hours before heading to Kathmandu.

Just before departing a local news station sent a reporter down to catch the details of my trip.

It was a total bust.

Some of the details in the narration of the report were inaccurate.

More than that, I gave 20 minutes of a solid interview about the resiliency of Nepali people, their resourcefulness, their radical hospitality, and all that I’ve learned from my Nepali friends about fidelity in friendship.

I also highlighted our friends Gautham & Rekha, but none of that ended up in the final cut.

Finally, I strongly urged people to reach out to the Bhutanese and Nepali refugee communities in Omaha, exploring ways to help them and their efforts.

Sadly, the punch line of news report was that as I was traveling to Nepal, bringing batteries and flashlights.

It was really disappointing.

 

Thankfully I was able to get reasonably affordable tickets and began to make the long journey west with flights through Denver, Los Angles, Seoul, and Bangkok.

In Bangkok I was getting word that the Nepal government was sending tourists away and cancelling commercial flights. I was pretty nervous my flight too would be cancelled. There were reports that planes were being turned away due to such heavy congestion on the runway. The day before my arrival almost 450 flights had landed or taken off, a record for the little one-runway airport.

I did however manage to wiggle onto that last segment, Bangkok to Kathmandu, despite the flight having been over-sold. Many of the faces of passengers in the departure lounge were racked with distress—exhausted Nepalese certainly anxious to get home to check on their loved ones. The flight was also packed full of international journalists carrying all sorts of high tech gear and massive news cameras. Most noticeably among the passengers were more than 50 members of the Japanese Red Cross dressed out in military fatigues, ready to jump in and help out.

Prior to my departure from Bangkok I sat in a lounge watching CNN’s live coverage of the protests in Baltimore and Philadelphia. It felt surreal, the simmering crisis of our failed post-civil rights America’s race problems simmering into a boil of repressed anger seemed a world away from what I was about to step into.

The flight in was uneventful, but upon our approach into Kathmandu the captain broadcasted over the plane’s speaker to let us passengers know we were being requested to enter a holding pattern. We made at least five loops around the Kathmandu Valley before finally making our descent, thankfully just an hour late, only to queue up in a long line of planes on the runway where we waited for another hour.

I arrived just six days after the earthquake.

And I was overwhelmed.

News reports say the Kathmandu moved 10 feet from its former GPS coordinates, and it did feel different in so many ways.

KTM Airport Tarmac photo credit Chris Heuertz

Relief supplies backed up on the Tribhuvan International Airport runway

The Tribhuvan International Airport had never been so crowded. It was chaos. An already small airport, the congested runway full of relief planes was bloated with aircraft parked wherever one could find room to tuck one away.

And in addition to dozens of military and relief planes (including quite a few from the Indian Air Force, but also places as far away as Turkey and Algeria) the runway was a bustling tangle of military vehicles, helicopters, and customs officers inspecting the hundreds of palettes of USAID boxes and other supplies backed up at the airport.

As I entered the terminal, a broken pink marble floor greeted me.

Two local friends Deepak and David, met me at the airport. I nearly broke down in tears right then and there. Even though I had heard they were okay, seeing them in the midst of such a crisis brought forward a wave of emotions.

On the drive to their home we journeyed past the cremation ghats of Pashupati (one of Nepal’s World Heritage site), the oldest and one of the city’s most sacred Hindu temples on the banks of the Bagmati River. Billowing smoke filled the air and rose to the heavens, the remains of the dead being burned that afternoon told a not-so-nuanced story of death.

That wouldn’t be the last of the cremation ghats I’d encounter. Every day the unquenchable funeral pyres burned the remains of those recovered from the aftermath of the quake.

Certainly the destruction of Nepal’s great religious, cultural, and rich historical heritage sites in places Patan, Durbar Square, and (one of my favorite little towns in the whole world) Bhaktipur, are significant losses to Nepali identity. The efforts to collect money to rebuild these important national icons are in full swing and will likely be underway soon. As tragic as the destruction of these temples is, we know they can be rebuilt. But the lives lost cannot be replaced and will forever be mourned.

Gautham Driving Through Kathmandu photo credit Nikole Lim

Gautham Rai driving through Kathmandu. photo credit Nikole Lim

Traffic on the drive to my friend’s home was visibly thin compared to my other visits. While in the city, I heard reports that almost 1 million of the estimated 4 millions people in the Kathmandu Valley had left the either because of fears that another, larger quake was coming, or to get home to their villages to check on loved ones and grieve their dead.

On May 5 The Kathamndu Post reported that at least 45,000 tourists have left Nepal since the quake with 80% of future hotel reservations cancelled—fearing that number to soon rise to over 90%. This promises to devastate Nepal further since its economy is dependent on the more than 800,000 tourist who visit the country annually, 70% of them travelling to Nepal between March-May and September-November.

So far the earthquake has claimed 8,200 lives, but the number of those killed continues to rise. Sadly we will never know how many lives were lost. Many of Nepal’s remote villages were already isolated and still haven’t been reached by the first responders. In fact, there are several villages that have been completely wiped out from the earthquake—rumors suggest that in some of the worst hit villages there is not a single survivor.

No one is counting the dead in the most remote areas, and in those villages those who have lived likely have no idea the world’s attention has been on them. They are isolated and alone in their fight to survive.

Rupa in Window photo credit Nikole Lim

photo credit: Nikole Lim

Just hours after arriving, Rupa and Dipa, two radiant girls I’ve known for 14 years (I met them when they were just 2 and 4 years old respectively), took me and Cathleen Falsani (a journalist from Los Angeles and friend who happened to arrive that same afternoon) on a walking tour of their neighborhood.

Just visible above the clouds, the peaceful snow capped peaks of the Himalayan Mountains stood in stark contrast to everything underneath them—Kathmandu was completely disordered, a city in shambles.

Walking Through the Rubble photo credit Chris Heuertz

Only the personal items of a household is recognizable, mixed in with the rubble of what was once their home.

I could hardly walk down a path without navigating through the rubble or stepping over smashed pieces of furniture that once filled a family’s homes. It felt like such disrespect for those who’ve lost absolutely everything.

On almost every block at least a couple houses had been significantly damaged by the earthquake, if not completely destroyed. Throughout the neighborhood were tented communities of folks recently made homeless—it was just heartbreaking.

While trying to cross the Sobha Bhagwati bridge in Dhalku, (a bridge I’ve walked over countless times) we came upon yellow tape and a couple dozen Nepali military responders. They were digging through the rubble from a 7-story collapsed building.

The day of the earthquake there was a birthday party on the first floor of this particular building. Nearly everyone of the 80 attendees were crushed and killed during the earthquake.

Recovering Remains Near the Dhalko Bridge photo credit Chris Heuertz

A Nepali military crew works to recover the remains of those killed when a 7-story building collapsed near the Dhalko Bridge.

The awful smell of decomposing bodies hung fiercely in the air. From a block away I could smell the foul odor of decaying corpses—sadly, something I’m all too familiar with from my work with Mother Teresa in her House for the Dying.

Within minutes of watching them work it became clear they were searching for the dead. And then, they removed the remains of two of the earthquake’s victims. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Endrayani Temple Damaged photo credit Chris Heuertz

Destroyed homes and the damage sustained to the Endrayani Temple

As we walked through the neighborhood Rupa and Dipa told us the stories of many of those in the area—pointing out buildings along the way telling us how many had died in each.

I couldn’t count how many we walked by who were sleeping in tents or outside their homes because of the fear of more earthquakes and to keep an eye out for bandits who wanted to loot their home. The community was torn inside out and turned upside down. Everyone was on edge, feeling utterly vulnerable and almost completely helpless.

Since the earthquake the onset of South Asia’s pre-monsoon has set in, making life unbearable for those recently made homeless, struggling to live in make-shift tents in Kathmandu’s public parks.

It was getting dark, so Rupa and Dipa started to make their way home. We turned down a little road and then Rupa pointed out where she was the moment the earthquake struck.

Miraculously, she survived.

Rupa photo credit Nikole Lim

Rupa’s survivor story was among many I heard. Her courage to re-tell it was inspiring. photo credit Nikole Lim

Rupa’s story was downright astonishing. She was in a jeep with several other children as they all headed home from church. The tiny little dirt road she was on was too narrow so Dil, the man driving the jeep, pulled over to let a motorcycle pass. At that very moment the ground began violently shaking. The house right in front of them came tumbling down, completely destroyed. Bricks fell into the road exactly where the jeep she was riding in would have been had Dil not made way for the other motorist. Mere feet were the difference between life and death. I listened, completely stunned, as I realized how close my friends had come to losing their life.

As we made our way through the city the girls kept reminding me to walk down the center of the narrow tangle of roads, fearful that an aftershock might bring an already damaged building down. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was pretty scared walking past quite a few of those buildings—one in particular that had a crack from the foundation to the roof and I walked by it several times a day noticing the crack getting wider and wider each time I passed.

As we cautiously made our way through the neighborhood we must have walked past dozens and dozens of destroyed buildings and ruined lives. Several times we’d catch the distinct smell of rotten corpses or human remains still buried under the ruins.

When we finally reached home I was reunited with my friend Gautham for the first time since I arrived.

Kathmandu Valley photo credit Chris Heuertz

Overlooking the Kathmandu Valley

Gautham and his wife Rekha live near the Swyambhu temple (also commonly referred to as the “Monkey Temple” because of the horde of feral monkeys that live at the base of the mountain Swyambhu rests upon), one of the many UNESCO sites that were badly damaged. Swyambhu is commonly referred to as the “Monkey Temple” because of the horde of feral monkeys that live at the base of the mountain Swyambhu rests upon.

Rekha and her husband Gautham have been working 14-16 hours a day, assisting friends, family, and neighbors affected by Nepal’s earthquake—using whatever money they can find to buy and deliver tents, blankets, food, and medicine to those who’ve lost everything.

Tented Community in Kathmandu photo credit Chris Heuertz

Tented communities, all FULL of children, had popped up all over the city.

When not in the most devastated villages or at the tented internally displaced persons camps, Gautham is in the hospitals to check on the injured—offering whatever help he can to reunite families or advocate for the most vulnerable who need assistance and support.

The Rai’s selflessness is unmatched; their hope-filled drive to re-build a better world is totally inspiring.

But their hospitality was humbling. In the midst of their crisis, they prepared a room for me in their home and welcomed me back as family.

At the start of each we’d share our morning tea and after helping my relief supply runs through the day I’d return each night to share dinner with the children.

Preparing Dinner at Karuna Ghar photo credit Nikole Lim

photo credit Nikole Lim

They looked after me, checked in on me, and showered me with the lavish Nepali hospitality that is famous worldwide.

While in Kathmandu, I spent my days between spending time at Gautham’s home encouraging the children, and with Cathleen running all over the city delivering relief supplies (primarily water filters) to schools, congregations, and children’s homes.

At one of the orphanages we met a 15-year-old boy who told us his story.

Collapsed Kathamandu Home photo credit Chris Heuertz

As many as 10% of the homes throughout Nepal were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake.

Thankfully his home was safe, but after the earthquake he hid under a table for a couple hours until he felt it was safe to come out from hiding. Once he immerged, he immediately saw one of the homes on his block that had been completely destroyed. Without thinking, he ran to the wreckage and began digging through the bricks and concrete looking for survivors. This kid actually helped recover the remains of at least seven of his neighbors and classmate who had just died.

I heard story after story of courage and heroism every day.

One afternoon we travelled to the village of Pharping. Our first stop was a monastery for young Buddhist nuns ranging in age from 6-14 years old.

 

Buddhist Nun in Pharping photo credit Chris Heuertz

This young Buddhist nun’s monastery in Pharping, has sent all their elder sisters throughout the country to assist in the relief efforts. The younger nuns, all between 6-14 years old, stay behind letting their prayers heal the hurts of this beautiful nation.

Their monastery had been damaged in the earthquake, so many of the girls were sleeping in tents in the yard beside the convent. Each day since the deadly earthquake the elder sisters were sent throughout the country to assist in the relief efforts. The younger nuns stayed behind letting their prayers heal the hurts of this beautiful nation.

My friend Jamuna’s family still lives in that very village, so after leaving the monastery we stopped by her folk’s place to check in on them.

Nepali hospitality is supreme. Though this family was in the middle of a devastating crisis, they took time to prepare and offer me a cup of chai (Nepali tea). It was then that I met her 9-year old niece Leeza. Leeza’s family survived the earthquake, but her home sustained structural damage. Since then, her family has been sleeping under a tarp on the mountainside, fearful their fragile house will collapse during the next aftershock or heavy rainfall.

Samjana in Pharping photo credit Chris Heuertz

The children of Nepal will inevitably be the second wave of the earthquake’s victims. Sitting in front of a little mud-walled, rice beer distillery in the village of Pharping, Cathleen Falsani (a good friend and journalist from Los Angeles) interviewed Samjana, my friend Ramuna’s 14-year-old daughter who is still scared since the disaster.

Before leaving Pharping, sitting in front of a little mud-walled, rice beer distillery, Cathleen Falsani interviewed Samjana who lives in constant fear since the disaster. (Samjana is Jamuna’s younger sister Ramuna’s 14-year-old daughter). Though she maintained incredible strength and composure recounting her experiences during the earthquake, when the interview was done her eyes filled with tears. I can only imagine the trauma absorbed in her little heart, mind and body. It may take years for survivors like her to heal.

Every story I heard from those who survived the quake inspires me to practice gratitude for every day of life God gifts us.

After a couple of days I went into Thamel, the tourist ghetto where backpackers and trekkers visiting Nepal congregate. All the small business owners, bar tenders and shopkeepers in the tourist district are in the city working for their families in the villages—and many villages have been completely destroyed.

Leeza in Pharping photo credit Chris Heuertz

Young Leeza leaning against her damaged home in Pharping

There were eerily mundane moments, over lunch for example at a spot where I’ve eaten dozens of meals, staff were at work just like any other day. Shops were open selling pashmina scarves and Himalayan sounding bowls to tourists from all around the world. But, as soon as I’d recognize an old acquaintance, the first 10-15 minutes opened up a recounting of their tragic moments in the quake, and then without exception the stories turned to immense loss and displacement of their family back in the villages.

I saw a lot of old friends, and with each reconnection they immediately began reliving their trauma stories, a sort of verbal processing or subconscious debriefing of the moment the quake struck. In most cases their own homes had been destroyed. Their need to have the story heard and their spared lives celebrated was sobering. And every one of them, though safe themselves, told of lost loved ones, friends and entire families.

Waiting photo credit Nikole Lim

photo credit Nikole Lim

While I was there, the city it continued to shake. Ten days after the initial quake there had been over 130 smaller earthquakes rocking the Kathmandu Valley. Most of them didn’t bring more destruction, but a few of them brought down damaged buildings that had somehow managed to withstand the first quake.

I have to say, on one hand I was impressed with the international response. Especially given that no one was prepared for this, and once it happened electricity, phone lines, and internet were for the large part down for a week.

All over the city were teams from relief organizations, doctors, and of course nearly ever local NGO was hard at work sending out groups to deliver supplies.

On the other hand in emergency crisis situations like this, when no one is prepared, coordinating response is almost impossible. And the government seems to be hindering the process.

With an already strained infrastructure (limited access to remote areas, few reliable roads and no interstate equivalent, inconsistent electricity, and non-reliable internet), the people are increasingly getting frustrated with the local government’s response.

Each day there were new rumors. One suggested a “Prime Minister’s Relief Fund” that was seizing all foreign donations sent to Nepali NGO’s. Another speculated that the piles and piles of supplies held at the airports were to be taxed 26% to anyone who took and used them.

In the midst of such a fragile relief effort, a lot of people continue to ask me about volunteer opportunities.

Unfortunately, at this point I don’t know of local groups that can use non-Nepali speaking helpers. In fact, while I was there most of the grassroots, first responders weren’t sending any foreigners into the villages and affected areas—the supplies were already scarce leading to great disappointment on the ground. Had foreigners shown up to deliver relief supplies, the expectations would have been higher caused even more frustration.

But I imagine in a few months, after this intense phase of triage, there will be places and ways to get involved. In the meantime the urgent need for prayers and gifts to the groups on the ground doing the hard work is critical.

Evening Prayers photo credit Nikole Lim

Evening prayers. photo credit Nikole Lim

Leaving Nepal was hard, really, really hard.

I left with hope that the people of a new Nepal won’t merely rebuild, but build a better future for their country.

The resourcefulness and resilience of the Nepali people is unmatched. Those already with close to nothing (Nepal’s GDP is approximately $2,400 per capita, the GNI is $2,260, making it one is the world’s poorest countries), are giving what little they have.

I also left with a renewed sense that we are not here without reason. We have a divine purpose. This affirmation was made clear each day when I held and rocked a beautiful little baby girl to sleep for her morning nap.

On my first day in the city I met Mariyanna, Jamuna’s newest daughter.

I was actually holding Mariyanna during the worst of the aftershocks (it was a 4.9 magnitude earthquake) I experiences while in Kathmandu. As the building shook, I felt like Mariyanna was the one keeping me safe.

Mariyanna wasn’t even 2 months old when Nepal’s earthquake struck.

Born into a time of suffering, she is no doubt a child of promise. Mariyanna will grow up in a new Nepal, one with great challenges and great opportunities.

The surviving children of Nepal will inevitably be the second wave of the earthquake’s victims—simultaneously they will become the architects of their country’s future, full of promise, power, and potential.

As Nepal begins reconstruction there is, though it may seem remote, the potential to not merely rebuild, but to build better—a better future for the children of this country.

I left Kathmandu with a broken and heavy heart. I still can’t comprehend all the devastation I witnessed and the stories I heard will no doubt haunt me for quite some time.

But I left with a renewed sense of hope. The resourcefulness, resiliency, and responsiveness of my Nepali friends inspires me with confidence that they will be okay.

And in the tender hands of Nepal’s children the dream for a better future IS possible.

Kathmandu photo credit Nikole Lim

photo credit Nikole Lim

2 Responses

  1. Christiana

    Keep writing, friend. I’m sure it’s a great way for you to process as well as a personal, humanizing view into Nepal awakening compassion in those of us who are so far from it all. Media isn’t always the best at that, as you know well. You have a heart of gold and I’m thankful to know you.

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