Nepal on the mend

Nepal on the mend
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The earthquake in Nepal in April destroyed 598,000 homes and killed close to 9,000 people. At 7.8 magnitude, it was the worst quake since 1934 when an 8-magnitude one killed 10,600.

Some three months later, one in 10 is still homeless and seeking shelter in tents or under tarpaulin sheets in any open space that can be found in the crowded capital Kathmandu - fields, school grounds, or a rare patch of grass between houses.

Smack in the centre of Kathmandu is Tundikhel, a huge open field that in better days was used for concerts, exercise, religious festivals and military parades.

Now, an afternoon at Tundikhel sees mothers chatting or doing laundry by the 150 to 200 huge blue tents erected by the Chinese, while toddlers mill about and older children play football. Most of the men are out working or looking for jobs.

"We can stay here only until the end of the week. Only those from Kathmandu can remain," said Ms Poonam Shrestha, 20, as she breastfed her 20-month-old son. Like many still at Tundikhel, her entire village, which is four hours from Kathmandu, had been destroyed.

With no money to fall back on, her husband moved the family with just an extra set of clothes, hoping the government or the international relief community will resettle them. Her story was echoed by many others in the camp.

People from Kathmandu have mostly moved back to homes certified safe by engineers, leaving rectangles of dead grass where their tents used to be.

Nepalese who have lost their homes should have received 15,000 rupees (S$200) from the government in emergency grants. But a permanent home costs upwards of one million rupees and many cannot afford to rebuild. The average annual income per citizen was just US$730 (S$1,000) in 2013, according to the World Bank.

"I don't know what to do, I feel like crying when I think about it," said Ms Shanti Rimal, 31, who is at Tundikhel with her daughters aged 11 and 14.

Despite the US$4.4 billion pledged by international donors on June 25 to rebuild Nepal, the government is still without a rehoming plan. The government had earlier estimated that it needs US$6.7 billion to recover from the April 25 disaster. As people crowded around The Straits Times team to ask if they were going to get kicked out in a week, a policeman nearby quelled the rumour but said he did not know if there was a deadline.

Outside Tundikhel, snippets about quake trauma slip out during chats with locals over meals. Ms Babita Limbu, 43, recounted how her husband, a retired Gurkha, still sleeps on the ground floor of their four-storey home. He sleeps by the door so he can rush out and alert others if another quake strikes.

There is a 10-year-old boy who would not return to the home he has come to associate with the earthquake, and it was weeks before a shop owner could sit in his store without fearing the building would collapse on him.

More homes were lost in the remote areas, given that many were made of mud and stone.

A village in the mountains of Sindhupalchok district lost all its homes, leaving 70 households living in temporary shelters erected by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Singapore's Mercy Relief. Luckily, the casualties were minimal because most villagers were out at a funeral that day. Only two died and three were injured.

Now, villagers have to contend with the threat of landslides during the monsoon season - from now till September - since the soil has been destabilised by the quakes.

Landslides in Taplejung district east of Nepal killed more than 50 last month. But the villagers have nowhere to move to, said village chief Indra Bahadur Shrestha, 35. "Kya kerna?" he said, with a smile and a shrug. That Nepali saying means "what to do?" and it is a phrase The Straits Times heard repeatedly in six days in Nepal.

"People are used to earthquakes," said Mr Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly newspaper Nepali Times. After all, Nepal lies in an earthquake- prone region and has a major quake every 80 to 100 years. It has seen 346 aftershocks with a magnitude greater than four as of July 5.

"Nepal is actually a product of earthquakes... It is the movement of tectonic plates that created this place and the Himalayas," said Mr Bijay Krishna Upadhyay, director of community-based disaster risk management at the National Society for Earthquake Technology.

In most parts of Kathmandu, though, life goes on. Vehicles buzz around the city with police standing in for traffic lights. Women head to the markets for produce and the local newspapers fuss over how more than half of the 405,000 students failed their secondary school final examination in March.

There were fewer toppled buildings than expected. At Unesco World Heritage Site Patan Durbar Square, only three out of its five temples are still standing. But with the rubble cleared, a visitor would be hard-pressed to say if the damage was the result of a natural disaster, or wear and tear.

In fact, many Nepalese were concerned about the country's image in the eyes of the international community. Curious locals - from journalists to students, businessmen and religious figures - posed similar questions: "Is this your first time in Nepal? How do you find the place? It does not look as bad as you thought it would, right?"

Then a lament follows about how reports in the international media made Nepal look like it was completely destroyed.

"When something bad happens, people come and write about it. But when good things happen no one writes. The government has to tell the world that Nepal is safe," said Mr Shakti Thapa, owner of Venus Gallery souvenir shop.

And that is Nepal's message for the world.

This article was first published on July 25, 2015.
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