Nepal: Earthquake that ruptured more than a landscape
Terrified, disorientated Nepalese continue to abandon their traumatised city, but are prospects outside Kathmandu any better while aid remains clogged at airport. Jason O'Brien reports from Kathmandu. Pictures: Mark Condren
Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30
'In Nepal there is a saying: 'If we start something, we should think about the end'." Jampa Tesring Lama, a 26-year-old business management student, is musing on Kathmandu's fate as he considers getting a bus out of the capital to go back to his home village.
He is not alone in that. Thousands descended on the main bus station on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning in the hope of getting out of the capital. More than 300 buses had left by 8am each morning - 10 times the normal amount.
But there was still a shortage of seats. Scuffles broke out, followed by riots on the surrounding streets.
The earthquake has altered more than the landscape here.
For generations, in order to survive, people have been pulled towards Kathmandu from the surrounding valleys and districts.
In Nepali terms, the capital has long been viewed as the land of opportunity.
It has resulted in a population of 1.5 million, an annual population growth of 6.5pc, and one of the highest urban densities in the world - in a city where planning regulations were, to put it mildly, lax.
It's a potent mix considering experts have been predicting a major earthquake in the region for years.
This week, people have stopped seeing opportunity in Kathmandu, and have instead focused - understandably - on chance.
Read more here: 'We don't know where they are' - 1,000 from EU missing in Nepal
Many have concluded, not unreasonably, that the chance of death is much higher in the capital, be it from aftershocks, damaged buildings, disease, or lack of access to money, food and water.
If they have had the opportunity to get out, they have taken it.
"People don't trust in Kathmandu now," Jampa says.
He has thought a lot about chance and fate and destiny since last Saturday.
"I had just jumped off my motorbike to play football," he said. "It's hard to describe, but it felt like the air moved. It got darker. Then vibration, then this loud buzzing noise. It was so unreal, so different - I could only think that it was a plane crashing so I ran. The earth shook - horizontal at first, then vertical. It lasted for a long, long time."
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake started at 11.56am and lasted for a number of terrifying, life-altering - and sometimes life-ending - minutes.
Read more here: Pempa (15) tells of terror of being left buried alive
The epicentre was in Gorkha, about 120km north west of Kathmandu, but the initial focus was understandably on the capital, where the ground moved by as much as 10 feet in some areas, and the body count quickly mounted.
"I only learned on Wednesday that my cousin died when a wall collapsed on his motorbike. He was young, recently married and had just moved to Kathmandu," Jampa says.
"When I went back to my bike on Saturday it had been crushed under a wall too, so, you know... this is my second life begun."
The reasons for leaving Kathmandu are many, and manifest - from gouging by hotels and taxis, to dwindling supplies, to some reports of looting at displacement camps, to rolling electricity blackouts and no working ATMs.
Events at the iconic Dharahara Tower give a small insight into how far life has shifted from normality this week. The nine-storey structure in the centre of the city collapsed, killing an estimated 150 people. By Tuesday, some were taking selfies while standing on the ruins.
The bodies were decomposing underneath. The stench was nauseating. It was finally sealed off by the overwhelmed authorities on Thursday.
Read more here: Cruel earthquake hoax shows nation living on the edge
Would you stay around?
The earthquake has been described as an advertisement for modern building standards. Relatively new builds in the suburbs of Kathmandu - including apartment blocks - are undeniably ugly, but also proved to be sturdy, and are largely still standing.
But the tens of thousands of tourists who wish to trek part of the Himalayas each year don't stop off along the way to visit ugly apartment blocks. They want to see the majestic old cities of this diverse country, such as Bhaktapur.
However, its beautiful and ornate brickwork proved to be just as delicate as it looked - both in tourist haunts such as the famous temples of Durbar, and in the surrounding streets and laneways.
At least 200 people died here.
By Wednesday, 13-year-old Tina Bradhan and her family - including two sisters, her parents and a grandmother - had been living and sleeping in a tiny Suzuki Omni van in Durbar Square for three days. We are still too scared to go home, and we don't want to go to the camp up the hill," she said. It was easy to see why at the camp up the hill.
As the rain teemed down, groups of young men with poles pushed water off various points on the tarpaulin, but it looked inevitable that the makeshift structure, spanning maybe 25 sq ft, would eventually collapse.
Approximately 170 people were living underneath, sleeping on blankets on the ground.
Amil Bhandara (26) shrugged: "We wait, because we can go nowhere."
Ram Ianmi Projapati (22), stacking some of the intact bricks from her former home a little further up the road, also knows the value of patience.
She was trapped in the bottom floor of the house for almost 12 hours after the quake struck. She was only slightly injured, but unable to move. In the houses around her, four people, including a six-month-old baby girl, were killed.
"I waited," she said. "I was scared of course, and it was very difficult but I knew they would come. I could hear them."
Her family dug her out.
As the search-and-rescue effort began to morph into search and recovery, the stories of miraculous survivals were vying for prominence in the local papers - a little hope amid the grim reportage.
Associated Press reported on Rishi Khanal, who was trapped for an incredible 82 hours - and forced to drink his own urine to survive - after falling masonry crushed his foot.
There was Jon Keisi, who was trapped for 60 hours under a seven-storey building in the capital, with a Turkish rescue team carving a tunnel deep under the rubble to reach him.
There was the four-month-old pulled from debris at least 22 hours after the quake struck.
These, of course, are the lucky ones.
On Tuesday, there were more than a thousand bodies in the morgue at TU Teaching Hospital. You could walk in and view them - most weren't in body bags, many were unidentified.
It was grim, but it soon began to emerge that the situation in many remote villages in the mountainous region bordering Tibet may be comparable.
"Most people in the country would have been outdoors when it happened, because of work and so on," Shankar Karki (25), whose house in Gorkha was destroyed, explained. "So, many lives were saved."
But how many were lost?
Nepalese prime minister Sushil Koirala said the death toll could reach 10,000 "because information from remote villages hit by the earthquake is yet to come in".
That figure would be more than the 8,500 who died in the last major quake to hit the Himalayan region, in 1934.
Since the middle of the week, helicopters have been doing food drops in an effort to help those just 10km from the epicentre in Barpark valley and Laprak in Gorkha, and in the neighbouring district of Sindhupalchok.
From the air, some of the villages looked to have been razed to the ground. Some NGOs have said the fate of 2,000 families - up to 10,000 people - is unclear.
"Out here, most of the injured are elderly or very young - young men had left to find work in the city," Mina Kattel, who was picking through the rubble of her home at Khatel Danga, 25km from the epicentre, told Review.
By that stage, the road west out Kathmandu - which goes all the way to India - was clogged with buses and cars bringing many of those young men home. It is believed that upwards of 300,000 - one fifth of the city - have made the unprecedented exodus.
They are likely to be safer from increasingly-intermittent aftershocks there. Less chance.
But even if you knew the earthquake was coming last Saturday, choosing 'home' wasn't much of a choice for some: Kathmandu, where there was more chance of being crushed by, or being trapped inside, a tall, possibly unsafe building, or a remote part of Gorkha, where there was no hope of getting expert medical help?
The jury is likely to remain out on that one.
The jury will also wait before giving a verdict on the international-relief effort here.
Nepal is amongst the poorest countries in the world, and is still trying to rebuild after a devastating 10-year civil war that only ended a decade ago.
The UN estimates that eight million people here have been affected by the quake, up to 2.8 million now homeless and 600,000 homes damaged.
The Nepali government was never going to be able to cope alone.
The buck stops with the international community.
Notwithstanding the fact that critical help may yet prove to have been far too slow arriving to some remote areas, a number of NGOs have said that this is a long-term emergency, and aid will be needed in Nepal for the next five years.
But the international aid community is still reeling from criticism of the perceived failure of the €8bn intervention in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
This disaster is not comparable with the one in Port-au-Prince in terms of scale, or deaths, or in terms of the people affected and the desperate, pressing and obvious need of those people in the days after January 12, 2010 - at least from the information so far available from Nepal.
But the response will nonetheless be closely scrutinised to see if lessons truly have been learned.
They have started something - albeit slowly - here.
They should heed that Nepali saying and think about the end.