Nepal earthquake: why I had to return to a devastated country in crisis
Last month, days after our reporter left Nepal, where she’d been reporting from Mount Everest, a 7.8 earthquake rocked the country. Now she returns to a land ill-prepared for such a natural disaster – or for the full-blown humanitarian crisis that has followed in its wake
The devastation in Nepal’s villages two weeks after the earthquake – in pictures
Sun 10 May 2015 17.00 AEST
Last modified on Thu 22 Mar 2018 11.14 AEDT
Local villagers nine days after the earthquake. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
It’s four days since a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal and my connecting flight from Abu Dhabi is a sea of men, Nepalese workers from the Gulf returning…. well, returning to God knows what. There are tense, miserable faces in every row and in the seat behind, a man is getting quietly and then loudly drunk. “There is nothing left of my house. Nothing!” he says. His name is Navin and it’s his first trip home in 22 months from the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a waiter “earning very small money”. His wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters are now all homeless.
The scale of the devastation is almost beyond comprehension. The latest figures are 3,000 dead (though this will rise – it’s nearly 8,000 as I write), hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed and a third of the population directly affected. But on the drive from the airport, the only thing much different from when I left Kathmandu less than a week before the earthquake is the lack of traffic. But it’s a different story at the Summit hotel, a low-rise, slightly old-fashioned affair set amid flowery gardens.
Since I left, it has become ground zero of the international aid community and the car park is rammed with 4x4s, the restaurant heaving with people in agency polo shirts – MSF, WEP, UN – and dozens of evacuated climbers and trekkers camping out in orange expedition tents in the gardens. But through the melee, I spot someone I know: Nick Talbot.
Or at least I think it’s Nick. He looks completely different since I last saw him, which was a fortnight before the earthquake at Everest base camp. Then he was a slim six-footer who hoped to be the first person with cystic fibrosis to climb Everest; now, he’s about two stones lighter, a gaunt figure moving stiffly. I spent more than two weeks trekking up the mountain with him and a team of aspiring Everest climbers who had all booked with a Sheffield-based operator, Jagged Globe. It’s a month since I wrote about them on these pages – why they were there, what motivated them – for an article about the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas last year and the complicated ethics and problems of the Everest industry.
The last time I saw them was over lunch in the camp’s dining tent. I took photos of them all and went off to meet the base camp doctors in the Himalayan Rescue Association tent. I watched the Sherpas hacking into a massive boulder to make a platform for their Puja, a Buddhist ritual held at the start of the season to bless the expedition and shot a little video of another of the team members, a charismatic Google engineer called Dan Fredinburg, showing me the inside of his tent. It was such an extreme, hostile environment, base camp, the crack of avalanches going off every couple of hours, the ground – a glacier – covered in massive, shifting rocks. And maybe it was that, or the deaths last year, but when eventually I said goodbye to them all, it felt a bit emotional. I hugged them and told them to stay safe.
They didn’t. I spent the day of the quake realising that something terrible had happened at base camp and waiting for the news. Eventually, I got it: Dan was dead. Dan the extrovert, the storyteller, the centre of attention; Dan who mysteriously brought my laptop back to life when it got soaked by rain (by sticking it in a sack of rice for two days); Dan with the amazing Go-Pro footage and the larger-than-life tale, who I’d been sure would be the one who got away.
Two other climbers on the team were seriously injured and five of the Sherpas. Another 18 on different teams would die. It was Everest’s deadliest day and hard to take in and yet it paled in comparison with the colossal death toll in the rest of the country, news of which was starting to trickle in.
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He’s pretty deadpan, Nick, one of life’s understaters, definitely not an emoter. But, when pressed, he admits how terrifying it was. He tried to run but got picked up by the blast “and smashed into the ground and then I tried to get up and was picked up smashed down again”. He was bruised and battered and on the verge of hypothermia. “I didn’t have any shoes on and was completely covered in ice and I just couldn’t stop shaking,” he says.
But he was lucky, in so many ways. And what was becoming clear from the news reports from the rest of Nepal was that the people who weren’t were mostly the poorest of the poor. The concrete buildings in Kathmandu had largely been spared. It was in the villages, where the houses are made of stone bonded together with mud from the fields, that they’d simply collapsed. It was the poorest people who could least afford it who’d been hit the hardest by the quake. People such as Kandi Karma, the widow of a climbing Sherpa who was killed in the 2014 avalanche and whose house I sat in drinking sweet Tibetan tea. I wrote about Kandi, about how difficult it was to be a widow with three children in Nepal, and I’m shocked when I find out on my first morning in Kathmandu that her house has been destroyed.
And then there’s Sukra, as we knew him – Sukuman Tamang – a sweet-faced, always smiling kitchen boy, who walked up to base camp with us and who was badly injured in the avalanche. Paul Greenan, a 38-year-old Irishman in our group, was critically injured too; he lost a lot of blood, his pelvis was shattered, his arm smashed. Eventually he was flown out to Dublin by air ambulance.
When I see Sukra, his smile has gone. It’s obvious he’s still in pain. He needs an MRI scan on his back and although Summit Trekking, the local agency Jagged Globe use to organise their trips, have done what they can, he is in a long queue behind everyone else at Kathmandu’s packed hospitals. There’s worse news too. When I ask him about his family’s home, he shakes his head. “Gone,” he says.
The gap between rich developed countries and poor desperate ones is perhaps never as glaringly wide as in a natural disaster. The inequality between the two, always huge, becomes an unbridgeable chasm. The disparity between the value of a poor Nepali’s life, and a rich westerner’s is one that the Everest industry magnified and exposed.
And it seems… not ironic, painful perhaps, inappropriate, that it showed up again in the media coverage of the earthquake. In the US, especially, the news focused on what happened at Everest as much as in the rest of Nepal.
Over the next few days, the rest of the team finally make it off the mountain and appear at the Summit hotel drinking beers, high on the sheer good luck of having survived, though when David Hamilton, the expedition leader, arrives he tells me that he feels “embarrassed” by how much news coverage was “focused on the climbers, given what’s happened elsewhere”. He’s right, though on the first day, I point out, the only news coming out was from Kathmandu and base camp. And, actually, the most terrifying details of what happened haven’t yet emerged, as I find out when I catch up with Michele Battelli and Florian Nagl – Mic and Flo – Dan’s friends, who also work at Google and who found him. They’re still in a state of shock. It was more like a bomb blast than an avalanche, they say, caused by a massive serac falling off Pumori, the mountain opposite Everest. It landed on a ledge, which created a huge upward momentum, which then bounced off a ridge, overflew the Himex camp – another operator’s – and then swept across a huge swath of base camp.
I’ve seen the video, I say – the film shot by a German climber.
“The video was nothing!” says Flo. “Nothing! They were right on the very edge of it. It was so much bigger than that. It was just this huge – huge – cloud of ice and rocks. You know those photos of Hiroshima from the air? It was like that, except we were at ground level.” When I ask Michele how high it was, he considers it carefully then says: “At least 300 metres high. And a kilometre across.”
Three hundred metres? I say. I can’t even visualise it. The force was so enormous, they found Dan’s ice axe almost a kilometre from his tent.
Survival was a matter of seconds, split seconds. “I was in Dan’s tent,” says Mic. “We were looking at photos, and it was seconds. I put my boots on and was out of the tent and Dan was behind me. As I got out, he handed me my down jacket… and I don’t know if he stopped to get his camera or jacket, but he never made it out of the tent. It was wrapped around him when we found him.”
He and Flo dived behind a small rise in the hill and when the wave stopped they came out and went back up the hill desperate to find Dan, and “there was nothing there. Nothing. The only thing standing was the HRA [medical] tent,” says Mic. “When I got to Dan’s tent it wasn’t there. All there was was his duffel with a massive great boulder on it,” says Flo.
They found him about 150 metres down the hill, curled against a rock, the back of his head cracked open. “I saw Rachel [Tullet, a British doctor] come stumbling out of the HRA tent,” says Mic. “She was limping. She staggered out and I shouted at her and she came over and examined Dan and then she just leant over and kissed him on the forehead and said: ‘He’s gone’.”
Dan Fredinburg (front right) with some of his fellow climbers in April.
Dan Fredinburg (front right) with some of his fellow climbers in April.
I find out from David that Rachel had actually badly injured her leg – torn ligaments, a cracked patella, a gaping wound – but she had worked all day and night to save the critically wounded. There were a lot of people with severe traumatic head and internal injuries caused by the force of the blast. “At one point, she hugged me and said: ‘I don’t think I can keep them alive.’ But she did. They all lasted the night. And then the next day, she stitched up her own leg without anaesthetic.”
They’re still struggling to take it in when I see them, Mic and Flo. It’s all pure blind luck – Mic and Flo’s survival, Dan’s death. Being born in America, rather than Nepal. Just as it was luck that the earthquake struck in the middle of the day when most Nepalis were out working, and on a Saturday, when the schools were closed.
Mic and Flo are in a simple guesthouse that trains orphans to be chefs and waiters. They have stayed on to help an orphanage they visited last year and to work with the Google Crisis team, who provide technological support in states of emergency. But Mic corrects me when I suggest it’s for Dan’s sake. “It’s not because of that. It’s because it’s the only thing to do right now.”
It’s a sentiment that’s evident everywhere in Kathmandu. Everyone seems to be doing the only thing they can right now, which is trying to help in whatever way they can. The news reports are so desperate, the situation so dire. Aftershocks closed the only international airport and then, when it reopened, it transpired aid was stuck in customs and the weight of the planes had damaged the runway, limiting the size of the planes that could land.
I hadn’t been sure whether to come back to Nepal but then I called Ben Ayers, an American who has lived here for 17 years and is director of a small NGO (non-governmental organisation)called the dZi Foundation, which supports rural development. “Come,” he said, simply. “Nepal needs all the help it can get right now.”
So I came. Because I’d bonded with the group, but I’d also bonded with Nepal. Poor, blighted, beautiful, desperate Nepal. Home to both perhaps the most gorgeous scenery on earth and some of its poorest people. I find Ben at a nearby B&B, the Yellow House, where there are sacks of rice in the courtyard, Italian medics in the garden, and British backpackers manning reception. A spontaneous grassroots volunteer hub has sprung up, which he has been helping with, though overseeing it all is the Yellow House’s warm, dynamic owner and photographer NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati. Since the disaster, she’s been working day and night to do what she can. A website has been launched to collect data (quakemap.org), and there are dozens of people thronging the garden trying to organise relief missions and marshal supplies.
“It’s just happened!” she says. “Nobody is organising this. We were just a group of friends who wanted to try and help somehow, and it’s just ballooned. It blew up on Facebook and the next day hundreds of people just turned up and people were ringing us from all over to give us things.”
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Relief has barely started getting through. In the paper, I read that the worst-hit area, Sindhupalchok, where more than 3,000 people have died, has received almost nothing at all. And then, minutes later, in the hotel laundry, I come across a man called Nakul Khadka, whose parents and two brothers live there and whose houses have been totally destroyed.
“They have nothing. They are sleeping outside in the open. There is no help. I am going tomorrow to take them plastic for a roof. Everything is gone. The whole village is destroyed.”
I end up going with him. One of NayanTara’s relief trucks drops us off, three hours out of Kathmandu. It’s beyond a place called Jalbire but we’ve heard trucks are being looted, so the villagers come to a prearranged spot: a ragtag bunch of old men and small boys who are thrilled to receive a few basic necessities – a tarpaulin each, a packet of biscuits, some thin foam to sleep on.
There’s a terrible stench: it’s boiling hot and the animals killed in the quake are rotting where they fell. Other bodies, too, though I try not to think about that. The plan is that Sagar Chhetri, a Nepalese photographer, and I are going to walk to the village with Nakul to meet his parents and see their house, but a jeep of Nepalese army officers stop and Sagar confers with them. “It’s been seven days,” he translates. “They’re getting desperate. They’re saying it might be quite…intense ”
We look at each other, uncertainly. “It’s only five kilometres,” Nakul says – pleads, really – so we turn and go. It’s different being on foot. The landscape unfolds slowly: it’s a sublimely beautiful river valley, with lush green terraces rising on either side. And beneath them, scenes of total devastation. It looks like a war zone, like images I’ve seen from the second world war of flattened French villages after the D-day landings, though there’s an almost alarming degree of normality too.
Amid so much ruin, it’s almost uncanny to see crops growing, and baby goats butting one another, and despite the desperateness all around us, the young boys in Nakul’s band are still young boys. They laugh and joke, finding it hilarious to have a foreigner in tow, and every two minutes one of them asks me: “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”
Nakul’s five kilometres turns out to be more like 15. It’s dusk when we reach his hamlet and thunder is rumbling in the hills overhead. There’s a mound of rubble where his father’s house was, and another where his older brother’s was. His mother is hunched over in pain from where a rock fell on her back. But she’s pleased to see Nakul, who takes some ibuprofen gel from his bag, five metres of plastic sheeting and a can of kerosene.
Dambar Bahadur in front of the house he bulit decades ago.
Dambar Bahadur in front of the house he built decades ago. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
His 72-year-old father, Dambar Bahadur, has constructed a simple shelter beneath the ruins of their house. It’s covered with plant matting and one piece of plastic, with space for a fire at one end, the goats at the other and in the middle two simple wooden, mattress-less platform beds they’d salvaged from the house. Those and some dented cooking pots are everything they now own in the world.
We didn’t think we’d be staying overnight and I realise with a sinking heart that I have walked into a humanitarian crisis carrying little more than a small packet of biscuits. Sagar is looking dubiously at the shelter and, more pertinently, the pile of rubble precariously balanced above it. The aftershocks have continued all week and relentless rain in the first few days has caused innumerable landslips.
“Let’s assess our exit strategy,” I say, and we both stare at the hillside, the steep terraces leading down to the river and up to the road above. “Down,” I say, and Sagar silently nods.
Despite everything, it’s strangely familiar. It’s easy to think that poor people, foreigners in strange lands, far away, are not like us. Especially after something like this. But Nakul looks about five when he eats the chicken he’s brought and which his mother has cooked. “Mother flavour!” he says. Though I manage to give Dambar most of my meat, I spot him sneaking a knuckle to his favourite dog, just like my own dad would do.
He built the houses with his own hands with rocks gathered from the land. “My father is such a hard worker,” says Nakul. “He says he needs to build a strong house, with concrete pillars. But he thinks it would cost eight to 10 lakh [$8-10,000] and….” There’s no end to the sentence. No answer. And he doesn’t add that the monsoon rains will arrive in a month.
They did survive though. We see two figures in a house on the opposite side of the river picking through the rubble. Two people died there, says Dambar. A baby and an older woman.
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We go to bed straight after eating and all through the night the ground rumbles. It’s almost like being on the sea. I’m tired and sleep anyway. “I lay awake a long time,” Sagar says in the morning. “It’s like the ground is alive,” says Dambar.
The next day, I give an inadequate amount of money to Nakul’s mother, who looks heartbreakingly happy to receive it, and then we bump into a team of Indian doctors setting off for villages two days’ walk away. “There is a village up the mountain with 1,500 houses, all destroyed,” one of them tells me. “And nothing has reached there yet.”
All up the sides of the mountain we can see villages, miles from any road. It’s hard to overstate how remote and mountainous so much of Nepal is, how impossibly cut off. This area does have a rudimentary dirt road but it’s blocked by landslides. Then a man from one of the villages, Yanglakot, appears. He explains to Sagar that things are desperate. He summons two young guys, Bipi Lama and Bikash Tamang, on motorbikes. We hop on the back and ride for an hour up the side of the mountain on a hairy, unstable road strewn with fallen rocks until we reach the landslide, and then get off and walk.
The first village we come to, Tinghare, is totally destroyed. There’s not a building standing. Nine people died here but at the first shelter we come to, we are welcomed in. “Stay and drink juice!” the man says. On the ground, there’s a sachet of powdered mango juice that arrived with the one tiny heli-drop of aid that had so far come. They got it, Bipi explains, because their father died. “We organised it so that the neediest were helped first.” We manage to leave before he can offer us the shirt off his back.
Yanglakot initially looks in better shape, but it isn’t. The houses left standing are completely collapsed at the back and sides and in the wider area, the VDC – or Village Development Community – there are 8,000 people sleeping out in the open. We’re given a running commentary on the conditions. “In this shelter, there are seven families… this woman’s husband died… this old lady has a broken leg…”
We need to leave if we’re to have any chance of getting back to Kathmandu that night but Bipi makes it plain that he needs us to get help. “We’re journalists,” I start to say, but then give it up. “We’ll try,” I say. “There are 500 people who have nothing to eat tonight,” he says. “And the rest will run out tomorrow.”
Nakul Khadka (front) with some Jalbire villagers for whom he managed to procure supplies, 2 May.
Nakul Khadka (front) with some Jalbire villagers for whom he managed to procure supplies, 2 May. Photograph: Sagar Chhetri
When we get back to Jalbire, Bipi flags down an open truck for us to ride back to Kathmandu. “Here,” I say, handing him the equivalent of $10. “Please take it. For the fuel.” But, infuriatingly, he refuses and we get in the truck and jolt violently down the road with Gunjan Khadgi and his friends. He’s an accountant, he tells me, and he’s spent all week gathering supplies and taking them out to the villages. But then the roads are thronged with ordinary people who have driven out from Kathmandu to bring rice and blankets and tarpaulin, and anything else they can lay their hands on.
It feels like a modern-day Dunkirk. In 1940, thousands of people in tiny boats sailed across the channel to rescue stranded soldiers. In Nepal, in 2015, it’s people in cars and trucks and jeeps and motorbikes who are carrying whatever they can. It’s my third trip to Nepal and I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers here again and again, but this is something else. It’s like a tidal wave of human emotion. “We had to do something,” says Gunjan. “We just fundraised among friends. And then some friends from abroad sent us money and we had a contact in a village so we took what we could. And then we did it again. There is nothing from the government getting through out here. Nothing!”
Sagar and I spend the evening worrying. We went with a notebook and a camera and we’ve come back feeling responsible for 8,000 people. I don’t think this is how the professionals do it, I tell him. We tell NayanTara about the village because, at the moment, it’s the only thing we can think of. “But you must know of so many villages like this,” I say. She shrugs. “They all count. And we have the information here and a contact. I will try and find some things.”
I email the press contacts I have at various charities to find out how to report the village’s situation and then prowl the breakfast buffet at the Summit hotel to track down the UN’s press officer who I suspect might be here. She is. Her name is Orla Fagan, and she’s out on the terrace.
“Who’s actually in charge?” I ask her. “We are,” she says.
She works for OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), which head up the global response in any emergency (“This is what we do. We’re on the plane the same day”). The body immediately raised $15m from governments around the world in a flash appeal and organised the “cluster” system that tries to coordinate the NGOs on the ground.
“The problem,” says Orla, “is not everyone wants to coordinate. Freelance NGOs, well-meaning people, may have the very best intentions but they can cause a lot of problems. We had people sending containers of secondhand clothes after the tsunami. To a tropical country! We had to pay for them to be destroyed.”
But the only help getting out to some of these villages is being provided by these well-meaning people, I say. And I’m not totally convinced when she tells me: “This is not a food emergency. They’re farmers. The shops are reopening. They can buy rice.”
But they lost their stockpiles, I say. They don’t have any money. People are running out of food. I’ve met them. In a cafe across the road from the UN compound, I meet Thomas Bell, one of the most authoritative foreign correspondents in Kathmandu and the author of an excellent book, Kathmandu. He rolls his eyes when I report what Orla said. “But where are they? If these volunteers are so counterproductive, where are the professionals? I was out in Sindhupalchok with a group of businessmen who were distributing aid and there were no helicopters overhead. These white jeeps that are so visible in the capital –I didn’t see any of them out there.”
The problems are multiple and complex, he says. “The government was knocked for six initially and then responded with characteristic bureaucratic obscurantism. It was reported they were taxing relief supplies but they denied it so I thought it was just a rumour, but it turns out it was true. And there’s a ton of stuff stuck at the border because everything has to be checked by a customs official, which takes days and days and days.”
None of which will help Yanglakot. But I have a lead. Save the Children, I find out, is the lead NGO for emergency relief in Sindhupalchok, but when I ring Sanjeeb Shakya, the charity’s humanitarian response manager for the district, I can hear the frustration and exhaustion in his voice. “The scale of it’s so large. It is just three hours from Kathmandu and the main roads are now open. But out of 63,000 houses, perhaps 5,000-6,000 are standing. And this is just one district.
“The extent of the damage is so enormous… we had supplies in the country but only enough for 5,000 families and we need so much more and we can’t get our supplies into the airport. We don’t have a landing slot. We have these huge cargo planes and we can’t get them in.”
Save the Children itself is responding to 15 Village Development Committees (VDCs) in the area (though not Yanglakot’s), he says, and so far he reckons they have managed to reach 37,000 people. It’s a huge number, but still only around 10% of those in need. It is one of the best-placed organisations to help, though, having 400 staff in the country before any of this happened, and it is one of the charities that will benefit from the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Nepal appeal. The British public have so far donated an astonishing £47m. (An anonymous aid worker tells me: “St Joanna Lumley helped. I was looking at the donation counter after she made her TV appeal and it just went crazy.”) The last update I have from Save the Children’s press officer is that in the last 24 hours, supplies are just starting to get in.
But there’s still the issue of Yanglakot, right here and now. I trudge back to the Yellow House to donate some of my money and some of the Observer’s, only to find that the amazing NayanTara has sent a truck with about $1,500 worth of goods up there. “They were so happy,” a 19-year-old backpacker called Will Jonas, who was on the truck, tells me. “Nothing else had got through.” Big aid will kick in, shortly, hopefully. But in the meantime, it’s the volunteers, all across the city, that are filling the gaps.
“It’s a genuine phenomenon,” Thomas Bell tells me. And to prove the point, the owner of the cafe, Cass Deoj, who happens to be standing by our table, chips in to say that he knows a group of software engineers who are organising a mass mobilisation. “It’s so inspiring. I was feeling so hopeless about everything. But I’m so impressed by them.” He was feeding the volunteers for free in his other restaurant. “That’s the only thing I could do.”
And the only thing I can do is to give money. And come back to Nepal at some point. (“Tell people to go on a trek,” Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times, tells me to say. “That’s the most direct way you can help Nepal.”) It’s all blind luck. That’s my lesson of the Nepalese earthquake. I could be dead. You could be Nepali. We’re the lucky ones, but it could so easily have been the other way round.