‘I was working here in Durbar Square, standing right over there, when it all started. Within minutes I was the only one alive’, says our guide, pointing to a pile of rubble that used to be one of the most beautiful and ancient temples of Kathmandu’s main historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That day, on 25 April 2015, the earth shook all over Nepal. The tremors of 8.1 in magnitude brought about unparalleled death and destruction. That day and during subsequent aftershocks, 9,000 people lost their lives, 22,000 were injured, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods.
In cities of the Kathmandu Valley, the capital itself, Patan and Bakhtapur, thousand year-old temples were falling like a house of cards, burying people under the rubble. There were slightly fewer casualties in the countryside, since many people were out working in the fields.
‘Miraculously, my wife and children were spared’, says Binod, the young guide we hire to take us hiking the paddy fields and sleepy villages in the Valley.
‘My youngest boy, Albatross, was the only one home. When the house started to crumble, he hid under a jasmine tree whose branches shielded him from the falling stones, saving his life’, he explains, patting the head of the smiling young boy by his side.
As we walk, he tells us the gruesome tale of the first minutes, hours and days after the disaster. Like most days, that fateful April morning he was out in the mountains with foreign hikers, a couple of French students. They survived the tremors without injury, but were left without connectivity – no way to reach the students’ families or the French authorities, and no way to check on his own relatives. He wanted to take the tourists back to his village where he presumed they’d be safe, at least until airports open and international flights resume. But the tourists, barely kids, panicked and wanted to get out of the country immediately. So Binod walked with them for 3 days, with no food or water, across flattened villages and fractured roads, until they reached Kathmandu and got evacuated. Only then did he return home to his family.
Humanitarian operations started in mid May, which may seem quick, but not quick enough for those under the rubble. Food and water were scarce, medical supplies were running low, there was a risk of epidemics. Rescue efforts were painfully slow in a country where the few existing roads had succumbed to the earthquake and flying a helicopter over the Himalaya is as risky as it is futile. Then came the monsoon and the rains rendered the damaged roads even more impassable. In the densely populated Kathmandu Valley new media came to the rescue – city mapping crowdsourced to volunteers all over the world saved many lives.
And where is Nepal now, 2.5 years after the earthquake? This small mountainous country is one of the poorest nations in the world. The disaster is estimated to have consumed up to 50% of its GDP. There is absolutely no chance this desperately poor country can rebuild the damaged infrastructure and lost livelihoods without outside help. While spending a weekend in a small eco-resort among hills and paddy fields, we meet a group of humanitarian NGO workers. One of them is a Polish lady who has lived in Nepal for the past 6 years.
‘Initially the international community stepped up and money started flowing. It was actually more of a challenge to coordinate efforts and channel funds to the areas of greatest need. But now donor funding is drying out’, she says.
She tells us that people may not be in imminent danger of death any more, but they still haven’t rebuilt their homes. Thousands remain displaced, living in temporary accommodation. I don’t even need to ask about the destroyed cultural heritage, all the templates that crumbled to dust. They have not been rebuilt and probably never will. This represents not just Nepal’s loss, but the whole humanity’s.
Standing in Kathmandu’s once splendid Durbar Square we see rubble everywhere, gaping holes and piles of bricks, broken pieces of walls and windows. As if the earthquake happened yesterday. Deep cracks run across roads in the city, with cars navigating around them and pedestrians stepping over the holes and stones. Life goes on, but nothing will ever be the same.