Friday 23 February 2018

Aid starts reaching Nepal villages

Villagers wait in the rain as an aid relief helicopter lands at their remote mountain village of Gumda, near the epicentre of Saturday's massive earthquake in the Gorkha District of Nepal (AP)
Villagers wait in the rain as an aid relief helicopter lands at their remote mountain village of Gumda, near the epicentre of Saturday's massive earthquake in the Gorkha District of Nepal (AP)
Nepalese army personnel unload supplies from a military plane evacuating injured and stranded Indians from Kathmandu to New Delhi during a relief and rescue mission by Indian Air Force (AP)
People block traffic as they protest against the slow pace of aid delivery for the earthquake-affected in Kathmandu, Nepal (AP)
Rishi Khanal, 27, is freed by French rescuers from the ruins of a three-storey hotel in the Gangabu area of Kathmandu. (AP)

Aid has reached a hilly district near the epicentre of Nepal's earthquake for the first time, four days after the quake struck and as the death toll from the disaster passed the 5,000 mark.

Nepalese women pleaded for food, shelter and anything else the helicopter might have brought on an in-and-out run to the smashed mountain village of Gumda.

Unlike in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, where most buildings were spared complete collapse, the tiny hamlets clinging to the remote mountainsides of Gorkha District have been ravaged. Entire clusters of homes were reduced to piles of stone and splintered wood. Orange plastic sheets used for shelter now dot the cliff sides and terraced rice paddies carved into the land.

"We are hungry," cried a woman who gave her name only as Deumaya, gesturing towards her stomach and opening her mouth to emphasise her desperation. Another woman, Ramayana, her eyes hollow and haunted, repeated the plea: "Hungry! We are hungry!"

But food is not the only necessity in short supply out here beyond the reaches of paved roads, electricity poles and other benefits of the modern world. These days, even water is scarce. Communication is a challenge. And modern medical care is a luxury many have never received.

Gumda is one of a handful of villages identified as the worst hit by Saturday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake, from which it will almost certainly take years to recover.

As in many villages, though, the death toll in Gumda was far lower than feared, since many villagers were working outdoors when the quake struck at midday. Of Gumda's 1,300 people, five were killed in the quake and 20 more were injured.

As the helicopter landed with 40-kilogram (90-pound) sacks of rice, wind and rain whipped across the crest of the mountain. Seeing the conditions, the UN World Food Programme's Geoff Pinnock shouted over the roar of the propellers, "the next shipment has to be plastic sheets. These people need shelter more than they need food".

About 200 villagers huddled under a few umbrellas and plastic sheets as they waited to receive the aid, some with runny noses and chattering teeth. With the erratic Himalayan weather, aid workers are worried about keeping people warm, fed and safe.

"More helicopters, more personnel and certainly more relief supplies including medical teams, shelter, tents, water and sanitation and food are obviously needed," said Mr Pinnock, who was co-ordinating the aid relief flights.

With eight million Nepalese affected by the earthquake, including 1.4 million needing immediate food assistance, Mr Pinnock said the relief effort would stretch on for months.

"It doesn't happen overnight," he said.

Nepalese police said the death toll from the quake had reached 5,045. Another 19 were killed on the slopes of Mount Everest, while 61 died in neighbouring India, and China's official Xinhua News Agency reported 25 dead in Tibet.

The disaster also injured more than 10,000, police said, and rendered thousands more homeless.

The UN says the disaster has affected 8.1 million people - more than a quarter of Nepal's population of 27.8 million - and that 1.4 million needed food assistance.

Planes carrying food and other supplies have been steadily arriving at Kathmandu's small airport, but the aid distribution process remains fairly chaotic, with Nepalese officials having difficulty directing the flow of emergency supplies.

About 200 people blocked traffic in the capital to protest against the slow pace of aid delivery. The protesters faced off with police and there were minor scuffles but no arrests were made.

Police arrested dozens of people on suspicion of looting abandoned homes as well as causing panic by spreading rumours of another big quake. Police official Bigyan Raj Sharma said 27 people were detained for stealing.

But in a sign that life was inching back to normal, banks in Kathmandu opened for a few hours and stuffed their ATMs with cash, giving people access to money.

Thousands of people lined up at bus stations in the capital, hoping to reach their home towns in rural areas. Some have had little news of family and loved ones since Saturday's quake. Others are scared of staying close to the epicentre, north west of Kathmandu.

"I am hoping to get on a bus, any bus heading out of Kathmandu. I am too scared to be staying in Kathmandu," said Raja Gurung, who wanted to get to his home in western Nepal. "The house near my rented apartment collapsed. It was horrible. I have not gone indoors in many days. I would rather leave than live a life of fear in Kathmandu."

In some heartening news, French rescuers freed a man from the ruins of a three-storey Kathmandu hotel more than three days after the quake. Rishi Khanal, 27, said he drank his own urine to survive.

Mr Khanal had just finished lunch at a hotel on Saturday and had gone up to the second floor when everything suddenly started moving and falling. He was struck by falling masonry and trapped with his foot crushed under rubble.

"I had some hope but by yesterday I'd given up. My nails went all white and my lips cracked ... I was sure no one was coming for me. I was certain I was going to die," he told the Associated Press from his hospital bed.

Mr Khanal said he was surrounded by dead people and a terrible smell. But he kept banging on the rubble all around him and eventually this brought a French rescue team that extracted him after being trapped for 82 hours.

"I am thankful," he said.

The Nepal Mountaineering Association increased to 19 the number of fatalities from the avalanche on Mount Everest.

It said that five of the dead were foreign climbers and 14 were Nepalese Sherpa guides.

The avalanche triggered by Saturday's 7.8-magnitude quake also injured dozens of people when it swept through base camp, knocking over tents and people.

The association said 10 Sherpas have been identified. The Americans were Daniel Fredinburg and Marisa Eve Girawong, and the other foreigners were Ge Zhenfang from China, Renu Fotedar from Australia and Hiroshi Yamagata from Japan.

All climbers have now left Everest, ending the climbing season early for the second year. Last year, climbs were cancelled after 16 Sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche while hauling gear between camps.

Helicopters rescued some 210 foreign trekkers and local villagers stranded in the Lantang area north of Nepal's capital.

The international trekkers were stranded in Langtang, a popular trekking route bordering Tibet.

Government administrator Gautam Rimal said the trekkers and villagers were flown to the nearby town of Dhunche. But with landslides cutting off the roads from there to Kathmandu, the trekkers will have to trudge for at least four hours before they can board a bus to the Nepalese capital.

Meanwhile, the United Nations appealed for 415 million dollars (£268 million) to provide for vital needs in Nepal over the next three months.

It intends to support government efforts to provide shelter, water and sanitation, emergency health, food and protection.

The UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Nepal, Jamie McGoldrick, said the response to date was encouraging, but those efforts need to be maintained, especially in remote areas.

He noted that the coming monsoon season was likely to add a logistical challenge to relief efforts, adding to the urgency.

Press Association

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