Exclusive: Dust settles in Nepal, locals and tourists still uprooted

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No image availableNL Times

The dust had settled in Kathmandu by Tuesday, three full days after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook Nepal’s capital and other regions on April 25. The aftershocks grew less frequent and less severe as the city’s inhabitants grew more accustomed to their sporadic presence. Still, waves of devastation had already rippled into every nook of the metropolis.

The destruction of the earthquake, which occurred around noon local time, was acutely visible by the later hours of Saturday. Devoid of electricity, phone service and running water, the usually vibrant tourist hub of Thamel had morphed into a forbidding blackened labyrinth. Near midnight, panicked crowds and searching individuals picked through rubble-lined roads aided by candle or torchlight. Others rushed to Dharahara Tower, where over a hundred people were rumoured to still be trapped and where rescue efforts continued into the night. At the same time, hoards of Kathmandu’s civilians who had moved their lives outdoors were settling down for the night. Some were forced to sleep under flimsy tarpaulin-roof shelters on sidewalks after their homes were reduced to piles of bricks. Others were driven to sleep in gravel parking lots, fearing the continuing tremors would destroy their homes. Some foreigners caught mid-visit chose to abandon their hotels and pitched tents alongside locals in public parks. As morning dawned on Sunday, the city again burst into frenzy. Tourists rushed through the dust-crusted streets with suitcases and trekking packs in tow. They searched fruitlessly for English-language newspapers and wireless internet connections. Many flocked to their embassies in pursuit of a charging outlet for their devices, a working international phone and a secure place to sleep. Embassies provided their nationals with food and in some cases tents pitched on their lawns. “It was like a garden tea party,” English tourist Lucy Morris said of her experience at the British embassy. The Australian embassy was the same. It was crowded with travellers queuing to use the single working phone while lamenting their ill fate. Many expressed distress over foiled holiday plans, expensive emergency flights and panicking family members. “The awful condition of the Nepali people was not mentioned,” said Australian tourist Marsha Daych, this reporter's sister, of the conversation at the embassy.

Other foreigners joined the relief effort. American traveller Joshua Phillips became a local hero after he transported three injured children to hospitals on his rented scooter. Shyam, Kabita and Asbin, aged between 10 and 13, were seriously wounded when they fell from the third story of their orphanage, Triple Gem Children Home, as it collapsed from the quake. Dutchman Bas Faessen and his Israeli friend Michael spent Saturday and Sunday assisting local efforts to clear debris at the shattered Durbar Square, where civilians had taken to camping amongst tumbled bricks. “We wanted to help so we went looking,” explained Faessen. “It was hot and difficult work in the sun, but what can you do?” added Michael.

Some tourists were unsure where to lend a hand. “We want to help, but we just don’t know how,” said Morris. The English tourist echoed confusion common among stranded visitors. Despite the masses of Nepali living on sidewalks, in public parks and in gravel fields, several tourists were stunned by the seeming inaction of some Nepali military and rescue forces, with soldiers often standing in groups or perched on ledges engaged in conversation or staring at their phones. The Nepali government’s reception of significant aid material from foreign countries and NGOs, the relief materials were not properly distributed between those needing them, even as late as the third day after the quake, reported local daily English newspaper the Himalayan Times. That ineffectiveness came as no surprise to some locals. “The government doesn’t care or want to care,” said Kumar, a Kathmandu resident whose home was destroyed by the quake. A lack of preparedness and information about received resources was named by the government as the cause for inefficiency. "We have not prepared integrated information about how much assistance it collected so far and are working on it," said Joint Secretary and Disaster Focal Person at Ministry of Home Affairs Rameshwor Dangal, the Himalayan Times wrote on Tuesday. "We have not been able to distribute enough relief materials, compared to what we have received in the name of relief," further explained Nepali Minister for Information and Communication Minendra Rijal during a press conference at the Ministry of Home Affairs on Wednesday. He added that this was under government review.

Excavators sat unused on piles of fallen bricks as early as 26 hours after the initial quake. “I’m worried,” said 18-year-old Prakash Khadka. “Maybe there are some people still alive under there, but we don’t know,” he said. Khadka was one of 17 orphans from the Triple Gem Children Home now forced to sleep outside; an eighteenth child living in the home was crushed by debris after the quake. On Sunday night, relentless rain muddied the group's blankets and mattresses.

“The biggest problem in the city will be disease,” said Khadka. “We are all living outside, and it’s dirty.” Sanitary waste disposal systems were not implemented in any way, leaving people to squat in gutters just centimeters away from where they sleep. The stress on hospitals throughout the city resulted in premature release of some people with open wounds or infections, thus increasing concerns of spreading disease. Locals are hopeful conditions will improve with the arrival of foreign aid, which began flooding the struggling nation in the days following the quake. The assistance is part of an international mission spearheaded by the Netherlands.

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