Wednesday 13 December 2017

Funeral pyres burn as ruined city mourns thousands of dead

Richard Spencer

The first smoke of the funeral pyres was wafting last night over what remained of Nepal's magnificent Hindu temples.

The three great royal Durbars - the whitewash and red brick squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur - were shattered by Saturday's earthquake.

They can and almost certainly will be rebuilt. But those thousands who cannot be brought back were being sent to the heavens yesterday in traditional and simple ceremonies, against a broken landscape.

The scenes of the dead and - in a few joyful cases - unexpected survivors being pulled grey with dust from the ruins of their homes are all too familiar from earthquakes in poor countries across the world.

One man is pulled from a hole dug by rescuers through the collapsed floor of his house. His friend had been lying dead beside him for 24 hours.

An old woman, miraculously unhurt, is helped from the broken remnants of her material existence.

A woman weeps during the cremation of a victim of the earthquake, at the Pashupatinath temple on the banks of Bagmati river, in Kathmandu
A woman weeps during the cremation of a victim of the earthquake, at the Pashupatinath temple on the banks of Bagmati river, in Kathmandu
Emergency rescue workers find a survivor in the debris of Dharara tower after it collapsed in Kathmandu, Nepal
A woman rushes for safety during a strong aftershock
Nepalese take shelter in makeshift tents in an open ground from fears of earthquake tremors in Kathmandu, Nepal
A boy injured in an earthquake looks out from the window of a hospital as bodies are brought in a day after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal

A father kisses his baby daughter in joy that she is alive; mothers in desperation hold the hands of dead husbands and parents that stretch out from the shrouds that cover their bodies.

As always, the fear of what is still to come mixes with shock at what has happened. Torn between their homes and the possibility of aftershocks bringing down whatever remains of the masonry above their heads, residents flocked to public spaces. Everywhere, people embraced each other, and wept.

In Kathmandu, many ended up in the great Maidan of Tundikhel, the vast parade ground in the centre of the city that has served as a focal point for much of Nepal's idiosyncratic history.

Yesterday, survivors gathered here and built a tent city, one of many across the country, unthreatened by stone and cement. At the centre was a stage that had been set up for a yoga camp to be presided over by the popular Indian TV guru Ram Dev. Then the hunt for food and water began.

The conditions of uncertainty, the aftershocks and the failure of infrastructure and especially communications that come with major earthquakes are a breeding ground for rumour.

Yesterday, stories repeatedly circulated that an even bigger quake, registering nine or ten on the Richter Scale and due to strike at a variety of times, each repeated with certainty.

Even in five-star hotels, guests took their sleeping bags and duvets to the lawns, to bed down there.

The aftershock that did strike, at 6.7, compared to the 7.8 earthquake of Saturday, was bad enough, but the intensity of further attacks from under the earth is likely now to die down.

That leaves the disposal of bodies, and the rebuilding of lives.

There were some signs that Kathmandu's modern infrastructure had escaped with less damage than feared by pessimists, who knew an earthquake was likely and worried about the quality of construction.

Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, named after the grandfather of Nepal's last king deposed by referendum in 2008, reopened for commercial traffic yesterday afternoon, its runway secure.

Alarmingly, a Royal Thai Airlines flight from Bangkok landed at the same time as one of the major aftershocks. The air traffic control tower was evacuated, leaving no one to direct it to the gate.

Subsequent flights were diverted until some sort of service resumed.

As dusk fell, every available space along the river's banks and on its sandbank islands had been taken for the pyres, for a hundred metres downstream of the usual cremation spot.

Around these funerals, the families, hastily assembling their piles of wood, gathered. The smoke rose and floated over the city, drifting over the new lives of those who had escaped the worst but who, under their plastic and canvas roofs, have uncertain futures ahead. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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