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Visiting the Nepali Villages Struggling with Staggering Losses in Earthquake Aftermath

VICE News traveled to parts of rural Nepal trying to cope with the aftermath of last week's earthquake, where the long route to recovery has only just begun and local people feel they are being ignored.
May 1, 2015, 12:45pm
Photo by Purvi Thacker

VICE News is on the ground in Nepal, here reporting from Melchour, Chautara, and Lamosanghu villages in the Sindhupalchowk district, northeast of the country's capital, Kathmandu.

Approximately three hours from the center of Kathmandu, via the Arniko Highway toward China, is the Himalayan district of Sindhupalchowk, where the death toll from Saturday's 7.8 magnitude earthquake has exceeded that of the capital. The forlorn shantytowns within the sprawling district are scattered over the confusing rugged terrain and meandering narrow roads, drastically hampering rescue and relief efforts as crews scramble to reach the area. But in its sixth day of the disaster, the obvious lack of government-coordinated assistance has left the communities in Melchour village and the district headquarters of Chautara disillusioned and indignant, their patience hanging by a shoestring.

Related: The search for survivors: Earthquake in Nepal (Dispatch 3). Watch here.

"This is the first time someone has even come and asked us if we are okay," Ghoma Lana told VICE News as she wiped the tears from her wrinkled face and walked toward the remnants of her house — a debris of rubble, bricks, and aluminum panels. The stench of rotting carrion, feces, smoke, and grass wafted through the air as she pointed to a small hut where she and her husband have put up a picture of their 24-year-old daughter Srijana, a school teacher who died instantly when their house crumbled.

(Photo by Lokesh Todi)

(Photo by Purvi Thacker)

While most in the small village of Melchour had to dig up trapped and dead cattle with their bare hands, so that they could sleep on the streets without the overpowering smell, others have flocked to a nearby school where blankets lay carelessly strewn. "When they want votes, they flock to us. But no one cares that we have lost our identity and sense of belonging," said Anrit, as he elaborated that the constituent assembly member for the village has not even made one phone call to inquire on the scale and scope of need.

About three miles farther in the district headquarters of Chautara, the loss is staggering. Mudhouses groan under the weight of bricks, and concrete structures tilt precariously over the hill. Krishna and his wife are hastily packing a few surviving belongings into large polythene bags and moving to the encampment above in the Chautara Maidan, where a makeshift health clinic is operating with the help of the Nepali army and the district public health office. "Local Nepali media has not even bothered to come here, how do we communicate to international journalists what we are going through?" said Krishna, as he angrily motioned with his hands.

Related: Anger in Kathmandu: Earthquake in Nepal (Dispatch 2). Watch here.

To address this important issue of accessing the needs of the people on the ground so as to deploy coordinated and organized help in a systematic way, Dr. Tshering Lama, director of Childreach Nepal, and Lokesh Todi, entrepreneur and member of the Global Shapers NGO's Kathmandu hub, have come together to jointly map out a clear disaster relief action plan. "We want to add value, so we sent out a team of volunteers by dirt bikes to decipher the real problems on ground. There is only so much overhead helicopters can discern," said Todi.

(Photo by Purvi Thacker)

(Photo by Purvi Thacker)

Based on the initial response from the team, both Todi and Lama have brought in water purification tablets, tents, rehydration medicine, and diarrhea tablets to distribute to the health camp in Chautara. They've also managed to procure solar power generation so it can be installed with the help of an engineer and technician in the nearby Melamchi health camp. "It's vital for a health camp to have light and mobile charging points," said Subhash Pandey, from Gham Power, which has donated solar panels, battery backups, and other installation materials worth $3,000.

About a third of a mile ahead, in the Chautra makeshift encampment, Dr. Sagar Rajbhandari, chief of the medical team from the district public health office, sits cross-legged on an orange mat under a tarpaulin blue tent and emphasizes the pressing need of the hour — clean water. "I'm trying to educate people to filter and boil water as water-borne diseases will definitely lead to an epidemic," he said. While UN Habitat is planning to send in water purifiers, Rajbhandari feels a tanker with chlorinated water could definitely help. "There is open defecation here and people are relying on rain water. They are drinking that same water they use to clean themselves," he adds.

(Photo by Lokesh Todi)

Meanwhile, Bharat Shresta, from UNDP Nepal, said that food, water, and even shelter needs to be made priorities, adding that the people of Chautara are incensed and feel they are being ignored. "Agni Sapkota, a constituent assembly member, came by helicopter to examine the situation and people started throwing stones at him and he needed to be rescued by the army," Shresta told VICE News. There is a clear frustration among the people as the army camp's limited relief commodities are not being distributed in a cohesive manner.

(Photo by Purvi Thacker)

"My friend got two packets of biscuits, and I just got one packet of noodles," said Naani Karki as she paced outside a tent designated to treat the elderly and the hurt. The lack of continuity or structure has prompted Childreach and Global Shapers to come up with a plan where they are planning on making the Melamchi army barracks into an information, collection, and disbursement point from where donated aid can then be divided among villages.

"If you don't have a well thought out ground presence, then even a good intention can go wrong at a time like this," said Lama. While his initial plan via Childreach is to focus on families for now, he wants to rebuild the destroyed schools so that the children are not exploited or trafficked at this vulnerable stage.

Related: Earthquake in Nepal (Dispatch 1). Watch here.

"The children are suffering the most as they play in the rubble and are prone to mosquitoes and malaria," said Urgen Tamang, the 29-year-old principal of a children's school in Lamosanghu village, which is about an hour away from Chautara. He's grateful that the earthquake struck on a Saturday when kids were at a picnic. Originally from Darjeeling, India, he pointed to the turquoise and white wreckage in the distance by the water, mere vestiges of the school he used to consider his home. "I will leave. I know everyone, but have no one to support me," he said sadly.

(Photo by Purvi Thacker)

(Photo by Lokesh Todi)

With the cash-strapped government, and an array of problems including sustainable rebuilding to housing, health, water, sanitation, food, and medical relief structures, Nepal's long route to recovery has only just begun.

"I only hope that my mother doesn't die with this vision of her country in her head and my 5-year-old son isn't forced to grow up with this image," said 35-year-old Usha Tomang, her expression swinging from hope to utter despair as she sees her son picking up a stone and picking putting in his mouth.

This article was supported by the International Reporting Project.

Follow Purvi Thacker on Twitter: @purvi21