Nepal: Experiencing the aftermath

Nepal: Experiencing the aftermath
Every rescue sortie touchdown had scenes like this one, with survivors scrambling for receiving supplies or a chopper ride, or both. Most got neither.

Multimedia journalist Wajahat S Khan left for Nepal with a Pakistani military relief mission to cover the Nepal earthquake.

This is what he saw.

Day 2: A royal mess

Over 4700 are confirmed dead; about 1,000 in the Kathmandu valley, rest from the outer districts. They say 18 people are dead in the Mount Everest base camp. Some folks are taking the dignified way back down by walking, not flying down.

Over 1,000 climbers were assumed to be up there, but those numbers may change. Nobody keeps track of anything here, it seems. About 60 per cent of houses may have collapsed in the mountain areas, say the wires. Weather has disrupted the small helis that are landing there. The big helis are just doing the drops.

The backpackers are telling me that this is going to be a major blow to Nepal's mountaineering industry; as many as 18 climbers were killed last year in an avalanche, and there was a dip in climbers this year. Meanwhile, as western trekkers pay to fly back and check into Kathmandu's hotels. Some 400,000 are sleeping under the open sky in a western district tonight.

Rescue operators continue to work, but it's in the rural areas where the real problem is because of not enough equipment being available. People were using bare hands to recover bodies even in Kathmandu, I hear. And the government had a desperate alert out today: don't come to the hospitals with minor injuries, only serious injuries.

As for incoming relief, I saw u heavy traffic congestion at the airport.

Commercial flights have been diverted to India. The PAF C130 E I came on circled for a good 90 minutes before it was allowed to land.

Day 3: Citizens to the rescue

The current death toll from the quake stands at just over 5,000 killed, over 10,000 injured, and an estimated 8 million people have been affected in some way or the other.

The Nepalese prime minister has said the death toll could reach 10,000, with information on casualties and damage from far-flung villages and towns yet to come in. That would surpass the 8,500 who died in a 1934 earthquake, the last disaster on this scale to hit the Himalayan nation of 28 million people located between India and China. Threats of epidemic diseases remain as well, and the mood is getting bitter... Getting a tank of gas is taking people two to three hours as they stand in queues. Food and water and medicines are in short supply, even in the capital. Despite the millions of dollars of relief coming in, the government has been slow. About 200 people protested outside the parliament today against government negligence.

Some even scuffled with riot police at the main bus station, where special buses were supposed to take people to the rural areas, but they never arrived. Counting the government out, some folks are getting organised at the grass roots level; I met a group of local activists today, many of them graduates of American universities, who've put on their do it yourself hats and are organising independent relief efforts in their district, putting up their own Facebook page, their own online mapping systems, their own relief supply chain.

The airport is still congested; civilian flights are not being given priority; the one runway doesn't have the capacity to process outgoing flights, as aid lands.

Day 4: Nepal Army Headquarters

Got the first interview with General Gaurav Rana, the Nepal Army chief. Was told by him that 100 per cent of their air assets and 90 per cent of his 98,000-strong army has already been deployed. He also had a terrible casualty estimate...

On the death toll: "Our estimates are not looking good. We are thinking that 10,000 to 15,000 may be killed...Yes, that makes the 1934 earthquake not look like much, but population ratios have changed as well."

On preparation: "There was no way for Nepal to brace for impact. Even my troops were caught up and cut off...No amount of planning can prepare any army for this."

On political tensions, epidemic threats and criticism: "Yes, there is unrest, and we are watching it. Yes, there is the threat of an epidemic, and we are watching it. As for criticism, I can understand how people would be angry. But we are working with the police to identify local hot spots and control things [politically]."

On challenges: "Coordination is a heavy word. It's easy to say but difficult to implement...Our primary enemy is time. And we have no choice but to fight it."

Meanwhile, Rescue Ops chief Col Anup Thapar says to me: "The government is in the lead, but if you ask us, we have a different priority. We need 100,000 shelters. CGI roofs, not tents. We will find food. We will find water. But with the monsoons coming, the biggest item on our wish list is shelter. And I've just gotten 1,200 so far. So far, there is a lot of hype about relief, but most of the relief that is coming in is the equipment of the rescuers."

Brig General A.B. Baniya, head of military medical and rescue coordination team, has more news: "From tomorrow, we concentrate on removing debris. The heavy lifters will come in to clear Kathmandu valley. We are basing this on the premise that the rescuing phase is essentially finished. He who had to live has been found. He who is not found, we are presuming killed.

"I need helis, birds, anything that can fly. I have doctors sitting at the airport, and I don't know what to do with them."

Day 4 note to self: Death, grass and hope

Two men, two women, some soldiers, one machine, and hope. Four days after the quake, Usar Bahadur waits for wife, Kamala, while Basu Dev (b/w) waits for his wife Sabina. Kamala is the mother of a 13-year old boy; Sabina has two boys, one and three. I'm using the present tense, because we all hope that they're alive. But Usar has taken to alcohol. He was inebriated when I met him. Basu isn't talking much. Both women were poultry farmers in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Both were on the second floor of a five story poultry building when the quake hit.

Two male colleagues made it down and out. The women didn't. As neighbours and friends stand by and wait for both women to be recovered, a contingent of Pakistani specialists cuts through concrete and steel. The officer commanding these army engineers tells me that the "golden 15 hours" of the rescue effort are long gone, but as the building had a lot of water supplies and food, there is a chance that Kamala and Sabina have made it. Still, the sound equipment isn't picking up any indications of life.

"Not even a scratch," says the major in charge of the rescue. Meanwhile, the search continues, even through the rain. In dark humour, chickens continue to emerge from the wreck, many alive, indicating that the building has air pockets which may have kept the women alive, too. And so the surrounding lush village field smells of death, grass and hope.

Day 5: The peripheries

Destination: Charikot (4,200 feet), via Lambanagar (2,000 feet), aboard Indian Air Force Mi17 Lambagar is the first stop; it's got heavy military presence; the unloading of relief aid is organised; we pick up some soldiers and drop off rice; but the blankets are for the higher, next stop: Charikot. Charikot has more signs of devastation and desperation; dozens of people are assembled around the helipad, waiting for a ride; but only a few get it. The door is slammed on them, literally.

On the heli, we hear the stories of the survivors. Five Chinese engineers, who work for Sino Hyde, have been stranded since the quake; their manager, Chiang Xi, in his 60s, has a head injury that his colleague Sam (no last name) says needs surgery.

Xi keeps on slipping in and out of consciousness, and his friends keep trying to revive him. Anup and his eight-month-old twins also get a ride. He's a lab technician, and says his babies "are ill, that's why I'm here". His wife breastfeeds the babies on the chopper. People look away and try to give her privacy, but it's impossible.

The pilot, Squadron Leader Avik Basu, is exhausted: he has done 35 sorties since Sunday; he's done three today; he says he can't "handle the sadness" of the people he leaves behind in every ride.

Turkish Search and Rescue Team (AKUT) leader Murat Atwak doesn't want to talk much either; he has just spent four hours in Lambagar digging out two bodies. When asked how many bodies he has recovered since he got to Nepal on Monday, he says "I do not remember", and looks away. Then he starts passing out Snickers bars to the rescued passengers.

Day 5 note to self: The Chopper Syndrome

In the race against time to help those affected in the Nepal quake, helicopters are man's best friend. I rode with an Indian Air Force rescue chopper to north-eastern Nepal, but only after it underwent several hours of repairs. There were only four sorties in eight hours today from the Kathmandu Army Aviation airbase; much of the relief supplies, around 470 tonnes received till the fifth day of the quake, remain not distributed; only 180 tonnes were distributed till yesterday due to shortage of choppers, according to the Nepali military's spokesperson. Mil Spox Maj Gen Binod Basnyat told me that "there are limitations in terms of crews and machines".

The choppers are key; the alternative to a 30-minute helicopter ride to Charikot, a town in north-eastern Nepal, is a 5-day haul by road. And the roads are blocked anyway. Simply, there aren't enough choppers. Some 28 countries are helping in the rescue effort, but "there are 20 helicopters operating here, most of them Indian," according to Air Vice Marshal Upkarjit Singh of the Indian Air Force.

He's the guy who runs the air support sorties for Siachen. On any given Sunday, he's Pakistan-focused. Right now, he's thinking of saving Nepali lives. I bumped into a US military official, Lt Col Gianstefano Martin, who's the American DA in Nepal, and asked him about the helicopter shortage. Getting American helicopters here isn't that simple. Parking, refuelling and other logistical factors have to be kept in mind, he says.

Day 7: One million homeless

One week after the quake, things are still not looking good on the ground. Tremors in the city last night. Felt one at 4am, and another one at 4pm. At least 6500 confirmed dead. Over 14,000 injured. 200,000 houses destroyed. That's one million people homeless. Over 15,000 could be dead, said the Army Chief to me earlier in the week. I believe him. The rescue process continues, held hostage by bad weather and destroyed roads and not enough helicopters. The criticism of bad crisis management against the government continues But in a staggering study released by the local police, over 60 per cent of the 1,200 or so killed in Kathmandu were of working age, between 15 and 60 years old. That's sad news; it means this city, this economic engine of Nepal, just lost a lot of breadwinners.

Note from the tarmac, Airport Triage Centre Ten "parties", or patients, have just been medevac'd in from Dorjay via an IAF Mi17. The Nepal Army runs the stretcher service. The Indian 60th Paras conduct the triage under the shade of hangar. Most patients have lacerations or orthopaedic injuries. The Mi-17 they've come in is on its third sortie today. The pilots run back in for a quick washroom break and a bite.

The Indian medical corps major tells me five patients are heading to the Indian hospital, and five to the civil hospital. When I ask him what's next, he shrugs his shoulders and says "more injuries, more triage and maybe some sleep."

Note to self on Day 8: Late comes the cavalry

A good one week after the quake, the Brits have sent in Chinooks and the Americans have committed Ospreys and Super Hueys. But in a country that was already cut off from itself and the rest of the world before the quake, there will still be areas that are, simply, left out or forgotten.

The author is a television journalist.

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