Halfway up the hill to
Ichok in Nepal’s battered Sindhupalchok district, a group of drunken Nepali men
jumped aboard the truck. Some had covered their faces with chequered napkins
while others wore clothes caked in dust. Bandits was my immediate assessment and
they had chosen a particularly well-endowed truck to commandeer.
We were sitting on sacks of rice—700 kilograms in total—that had served as a seat on a challenging journey up what looked like an unpaved mountain. In Nepal, however, Everest is the only real mountain.
The men banged upon the bags of rice, lust in their eyes. They threw some words at us: one Nepali, two Mexicans, one Australian, and one Indian. “Who is this rice for?” asked one of them. The question was a threat, an accusation of wrongdoing. They had trekked almost two days in search of rice and salt as stocks dwindled in Ichok where despite sightings of helicopters, no aid had been delivered. Reassuring messages on the radio from the government and the United Nations sounded as empty as their stomachs.
The Nepali girl, a psychology student, intervened. “Speak to our leader, Mark Harris, he’s the bearer of this cargo dispatched for the good people of Ichok. More aid will soon follow,” she said calmly. The men were at once curious and sceptical about this “leader”. Their experiences with leaders had now put them at a place where the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund was inadequate to feed a population beleaguered by the “Great Earthquake”, as the Nepali media calls it.
They carried on with
us for the rest of the journey, for only the senseless would walk up the hill,
telling stories of dead family members, of a state that had been absent for a
long time and had not come to their rescue even in a time like this; of
depleted food stocks, and of the stench of decaying flesh.
In between listening to them, one of the Mexican architects pushed himself into the centre of group and took a selfie.
The earliest and most
visible relief presence in Nepal came from India. Indian planes were the first
to land in Kathmandu with food, water, earthmoving equipment, tents, blankets,
mobile hospitals, and specialised rescue teams.
The window of time in which trapped people could survive was closing, and as rescue workers started leaving, they took away the hope that had united the people of Nepal. Rescue over, a vast international aid apparatus was beginning to establish itself in Kathmandu.
I landed in Kathmandu a week after the earthquake. The window of time in which trapped people could survive was closing, and as rescue workers started leaving, they took away the hope that had united the people of Nepal. Rescue over, a vast international aid apparatus was beginning to establish itself in Kathmandu.
assistance and relief teams appeared daily from all over the world—the United
States, Canada, France, Switzerland, as well as the United Arab Emirates. The
World Food Program (WFP) was erecting tents abutting the airport and cargo
flights loaded with supplies circled the skies above Kathmandu.The airport struggled
to land planes on its single runway.
While search and rescue operations had been characterised by the presence of armed personnel and the police, aid distribution followed a more disorderly approach. Queues were seldom maintained, and those in charge of distribution struggled to reach an overwhelming number of people in need. In this period of chaos, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala remained silent, appearing on TV only twice, and didn’t have an answer for the years of neglect by successive governments.
“Where is your
leader?” the drunken man again asked. The group, whom I had identified as
volunteer tourists, looked at each other. The truck had stopped in front of a
house guillotined by nature, revealing lives that were once lived: a purple
mattress on a wooden bed, wicker baskets turned upside down; lives turned
Mark Harris jumped off
the back of the truck, his blue eyes twinkling with fire as he promised to
rejoin the group after coordinating with a medical team of volunteers from
Europe and America who were due to arrive. Harris was the “leader” who had
managed to mobilise a small contingent through his Facebook account and
late-night smoking sessions at a backpackers den called Fireflies. He had
raised a small fortune of $10,000 through a crowd-sourcing campaign.
Since the first day I saw him, he’d been in the same blue shirt and grey pants, covered in dust with a line of dirt running across his face. It seemed as though he never stopped. “When you reach Ichok, you will meet David Tashi Lama, he’s your leader,” Harris said. The volunteers in the truck were taken aback. They thought Harris was their leader.
When the road ended at
Ichok, David Tashi Lama emerged from a crowd that had gathered. He had ornate
tattoos that ran down his arm and the manner of a speed junkie. He hurried us
and the Nepali men off the truck and began, singlehandedly, to offload the bags
of rice as others watched. The men who had climbed on the truck to grab the
rice just walked away. A group of people from the neighbouring village loaded
wicker baskets with sacks of rice that they carried down a narrow path
westwards of Ichok.
Nobody complained that they had been waiting for almost 16 hours. When distribution was over, the smoothest I had seen in my time in Nepal, the volunteer tourists took shelter under a large orange tent and David Tashi Lama sang Nepali rap songs about the inadequacies of the state.
They call Ichok “the
town that built India”. Its Buddhist people from the Tamang tribe, feeding the
insatiable Indian appetite for cheap labour, have through remittances built
homes, lives, and the pagoda. From the smashed side door of the pagoda, the
sound of funeral horns and the banging of drums rises and then scatters in the
An old woman who has lost her son thumps the earth to the sound of the funereal beat, wailing. She shakes back and forth as a few onlookers rush to her while a row of women and children eat daal bhat and drink Tang, unfazed. With 26 dead, most have seen the scene on repeat for days now, too numb to feel pain.
Kanchi Maya watched from the sidelines sipping Tang from a plastic cup. “When we lose people here, the entire community comes together but with a loss in every house, we are divided. We can’t be there for everyone and ourselves as well,” she says. Kanchi Maya had just finished building her house after being a labourer in India for 10 years and was saving money for her children who were in the care of her mother. Seconds into the quake, her mother’s old house rattled and came crumbling down. A “violent swinging of the earth,” killed the old woman.
Kanchi Maya was
working in Ladakh as a labourer for Rs 450 rupees a day and saw the scenes
unfold on Indian television. The Indian media made it seem “as though the earth
had gobbled everyone up. This is not Bollywood, this is our life,” she said.
When she finally got through to her brother in Ichok, she enquired after her
two daughters. They are both fine but with the death of her mother, nothing
will ever be same.
“Who will look after them now, how will I ever work?” she asks.
Even before the earthquake, Nepal ranked as one of the poorest places on earth, with 25.2 per cent of its population living in acute poverty. Nepal was just beginning to emerge from a decade of internal conflict between the state and the Maoists. Despite political changes, the new government was characterised by rot and crony capitalism, with large parts of the country only notionally governed.
The immediate problem was returning home and resettling into a life she had long forgotten. With no real possibility of returning to India and a crop yield so meagre that it can barely feed the stomach let alone be sold, Kanchi Maya fears she has no real chance at a livelihood. Without the wage she earns in India she will live below the poverty line.
Even before the earthquake,
Nepal ranked as one of the poorest places on earth, with 25.2 per cent of its
population living in acute poverty. Nepal was just beginning to emerge from a
decade of internal conflict between the state and the Maoists. Despite
political changes, the new government was characterised by rot and crony
capitalism, with large parts of the country only notionally governed.
According to the World Bank, as of 2013 the 27.8 million Nepalese had a $19.2 billion economy that was projected to grow this year by 4.8 per cent largely based on tourism but that has taken a severe blow as UNESCO world heritage sites such as the Dharahara tower, a 60-metre white minaret from 1832, have come crumbling down.
Over the years, Ichok morphed from being just another hamlet into a hub of sorts with a bus service that ran downhill into Melamchi, a larger town. Neighbouring villages that remained entirely inaccessible by road looked upon Ichok as a model for growth and development. These advances came undone on April 25 in the 64 seconds of the earthquake.
But Kanchi Maya is one of the lucky few. At least her house is still standing. From the outside it looks like it weathered the assault but above the stove is a gaping hole about the size of a football. The crack in the wall, rumours of more aftershocks, and the local interpretation of the earthquake, “God’s anger”, have pushed Kanchi Maya outdoors. She sleeps under a sheet of plastic next to the orange tent where the volunteer tourists drop iodine tablets to purify water.
On her first night back she even entertained the thought of an escape to India with her children. Despite the promising words of the UN, that every household will be accounted for, she’s fearful. “There is no hope here. Nobody knows we are up here except for them,” she says, motioning at the clueless volunteer tourists who await their leader who has become a minor celebrity on Facebook.
When Mark Harris’s
house came crumbling down, the flattest in Melamchi, it claimed almost
everything but a guitar that escaped with a few scratches, a fat handwritten
book, and a suitcase full of suits. It was the most sincere form of poetic
injustice: Harris had inaugurated his project, an artists’ residency from where
he planned to finish writing his book, just the night before.
Melamchi is a quiet village, where any real noise means something has happened. So when the quake first made itself heard, Harris thought it was the sound of a drill. Then the walls of his stone and mud house shook so violently that he bolted out of the house.
As he was running towards the bridge he heard the cries of his neighbour’s children, the same ones who had been singing and dancing at the inauguration of his residency.
“I said, ‘come here, come here’ and held each child in one arm and watched the house collapse,” he said. House after house came crashing down, raising a cloud of dust. Further along the lone street that ran through Melamchi, a fire erupted at the electrical store that burnt well into the next day while the football ground served as temporary morgue as family members scavenged through pieces of wood in the remains of their homes.
At the government hospital people were rushing with handmade bamboo and plastic stretchers carrying injured and the dead from far off places. It is there Harris heard horror stories of a scene so desperate, of a people so far removed from state assistance that he felt lucky to be in devastated Melamchi.
The horror played out
in different parts of Nepal, as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake with epicentre in
Lamjung district (north-west of Kathmandu) affected 30 of 75 districts in the
western and central regions including Kathmandu Valley. The worst affected
districts are Sindulpalchok, Kavre, Nuwakot, Rasuwa, Dolakha in the central
region, and Kaski, Gorkha, Lamjung in the western region.
The government of Sushil Koirala immediately requested international assistance, particularly for search and rescue teams, medical teams, heavy equipment for the removal of rubble, and helicopters.
When the tremors subsided, Harris and a couple of friends journeyed back to Kathmandu expecting to find a “post-apocalyptic hell hole” but Kathmandu was far from that. People had moved into camps out of fear that their homes would collapse, yet they ate momos and watched DVDs on their laptops. Later that evening as he responded to emails and messages on Facebook he started an Indiegogo online campaign to provide direct aid to people in remote areas.
Several years earlier, he and a friend, David Tashi Lama, had conducted a survey of the schools in the Sindulpalchok region for an NGO. Then and now, Ichok was a place where they had forged contacts and could use it as a base to reach villages that were deeper inland. The initial aim of the campaign was to raise $3,000 to provide direct aid but the figure has since been surpassed handsomely. Harris now walks the street with a battered leather bag with wads of cash in it.
The boy beating the
funeral drums was getting tired and missing beat after beat. An elderly man
flicked him on the head but the sun, high up in the sky, was already playing
havoc with almost everyone including the truck driver, who had grown frustrated
by the indecision of the group. “I’m leaving,” he had threatened several times.
I had been on a twisted tour of destruction, seeing broken house after house and heard the same sentence everywhere: “We can never rebuild.”
If indeed there is a demand for disaster tourism as advertised on the Internet, of voyages across ravaged Syria, disrupted Iraq and chaotic Afghanistan, the voyeur might find a tour of earthquake-ravaged Nepal appealing. Down winding hilly paths, past stone and mud houses that lent character to this idyllic valley, blocks of bricks, piles of stones and mementos of lives lived formed obstacle courses.
If indeed there is a
demand for disaster tourism as advertised on the Internet, of voyages across
ravaged Syria, disrupted Iraq and chaotic Afghanistan, the voyeur might find a
tour of earthquake-ravaged Nepal appealing. Down winding hilly paths, past stone
and mud houses that lent character to this idyllic valley, blocks of bricks,
piles of stones and mementos of lives lived formed obstacle courses.
“The people of this area believe in the darkness of man, a deep-seated history in black magic and evil spirits,” said Harris as we journeyed down. We passed a house where a dead rabbit hangs on a beam; the lady of the house claimed its part of a shamanic ritual. Premonitions had warned her than an earthquake was imminent.
Nobody in Nepal was truly taken aback by the quake. So persistent was its reminder that every year in mid-January, Nepal marked National Earthquake Safety Day in remembrance of the earthquake that flattened Kathmandu in 1934, and the one prior to it in 1833. According to the US Geological Survey, Nepal is “one of the most seismically hazardous regions on earth” and the government in Nepal did try its hand at a disaster risk reduction approach.
In 2008 it developed a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management and was actively working towards implementing it though the pace with which this happened is up for debate. Efforts had been underway to upgrade building standards with a specific focus on strengthening mud buildings, especially schools. But there were simply too many old buildings and little political will.
“They should have invested in resilience,” yelled the man from the back of the jeep that belonged to the Embassy of the Philippines, as he drove up to the rabbit hanging on the beam. I could barely make out his words: his head and mouth were hidden behind a Palestinian keffiyeh, the scarf that Yasser Arafat wore, and he shielded his eyes behind bright blue reflective skiing goggles.
The journey uphill was treacherous and I was grateful to hitch a ride on his jeep. He was a disaster management specialist on tour in Nepal to survey the damage caused by the earthquake. He was collecting data, studying the manner in which the structures fell, second-guessing what could fall in an aftershock in order to be prepared for the quake in the Philippines, which lies in a seismically sensitive zone. He pointed at precariously placed rocks that weighed tonnes but were held in place by the meagre branch of a thin tree. “When a landslide comes, which it will, anybody in that path will be dead,” he said confidently, to which the others just tutted.
There was a volunteer doctor, a volunteer nurse, and a photographer on board the vehicle.
We stopped next to a battered house in a small village. The nurse went in and called the team over. The nurse carried with her the “magic medicine” of the earthquake, Betadine (an iodine tincture for wounds), and some gauze bandages. The photographer went wild inside, snapping photo after photo of the old woman's agony as they superficially cleaned a wound. A piece of stone had lodged in her arm, the skin around it had festered, and it was now oozing pus. No medical team had been up the hill so her arm had swollen to the size of a tennis ball. The doctor and nurse stared at each other and muttered “amputation” before carrying on.
We drove past greener
than green rice fields, skirting along mountain tops, at times on roads that
were smooth enough to gawk at the beauty of all that was spared. At many places
on the road, in villages and hamlets, children came running towards the jeep.
One of the Filipinos buried his hand into a carton and took out packets of
biscuits. He was like a sadist Santa, throwing biscuits, teasing children, as
they shrieked and ran after the jeep that cut across hairpin turns on cliffs,
some so dangerous that had a child fallen, he would never be found.
“Giving out aid is way
more technical than people think,” Robert Trigwell said and for this reason he
worked with REACH in order to develop information tools and products to enhance
the capacity of aid actors to make evidence-based decisions in emergencies.
On the day of the quake, Trigwell had been in South Sudan working on an assessments report for REACH and had seen the images from Kathmandu broadcast on CNN. A few hours and phone calls later, Trigwell had been ordered to pack a bag and board a flight to Nepal. I met him in the back of a taxi on the busy streets of Kathmandu where despite the loss of life and destruction, a semblance of order had been restored, where the only real menace on the streets were motorcyclists.
“You can’t air drop aid, that’s the worst thing you can do. Giving a bag here and a bag there, it’s not the way to do it,” Trigwell said. A man with an economy for words, Trigwell was interested in the three Ws: who, what and where.
During emergencies, whether the earthquake in Nepal or Haiti or the floods in Pakistan, the UN functions through the cluster system which ensures fewer gaps and overlaps in assistance by humanitarian organisations. Though the foundations for international humanitarian coordination were laid down by the General Assembly in 1991, a major reform in 2005, known as the Humanitarian Reform Agenda brought it up to date.
Crucial in this reform were elements that enhance predictability, accountability and partnership between UN and non-UN bodies such as REACH. The aim of the cluster system is to deploy all essential items to satisfy the most basic of needs: food, health, camp coordination and it was first tested out in Pakistan after the 2005 flood.
By the time I arrived, the clusters had been mobilised and were doing their assessments across 14 affected areas. Trigwell was studying the needs for food security and coordinating a response with other agencies. That is why we were in the back of this taxi on the way to the World Food Program.
“All everyone is thinking about is the medium-term,” he said. How to ensure that people are back on their feet, to make sure that they transition smoothly from tarpaulin to bamboo before the rainy season arrives. Like Trigwell, hundreds of aid workers have descended upon Kathmandu. Unlike Harris who runs up and down mountains, aid workers affiliated to bigger NGOs dart across the country in choppers, sometimes missing the smaller nuances of the larger project. But with so many resources to call upon, their reach is far wider. To put it into perspective, the WFP has provided food assistance to 3.67 lakh people in the worse affected areas.
However, in the social media, where individuals trump organizations, the faceless UN seems less accountable, less trustworthy than the Instragram-savvy volunteer. Do haphazard individual attempt at relief operation cause more harm than good? Nobody was interested in answering that question in the time of an emergency. Angeli Mendoza from the WFP said the WFP tweeted every hour, while Leszek Barczak, the public information officer at the UN House, was content with the public information team in Bangkok relaying all the information to the wider world.
“We want to get our message to the people who have been affected by this crisis, to the people in the small villages on radio. They don’t have mobiles with Twitter,” he said.
Despite the vastness
of the valley, the long distances between hamlets, news still travelled with
ease. For one, there was the radio. “A chopper is coming to your village,” the
announcer on the radio would say and people would gather in anticipation on the
flattest piece of ground. Then there was Kanchi Maya’s sister, married across
the valley from Ichok, who many simply referred to as “Radio Melamchi.” She
would talk on the phone for hours, to just about anybody who would listen,
“What chopper. No chopper. They said one will come but what came? Nothing came.
It’s all for radio, it’s all for show.”
So the people of Ichok who had heard stories of people waiting on plateaus for hours in the mean sun disbelieved the words of people they could not see, disbelieved in aid that they could not carry.
The people who mattered were the ones on the ground, the ones who had the trust of the community. There have been no elections at the village, municipal or district level for almost two decades and so the burden of coordinating an emergency response has fallen upon community groups, like the one inside Harris’s orange tent.
The tent itself had come to symbolise something that was in short currency in Ichok: hope. The group had achieved a fair bit: 2,000 kilograms of rice had been distributed, one toilet had been built, toothbrushes and tarpaulin had been handed over to children, while 500 people had been provided with medical care. Many songs had been sung where even the most despondent like Kanchi Maya had smiled.
When I finally sat face to face with David Tashi Lama, whom Mark Harris had called a leader as he had jumped off the truck, I asked him, “What will you do next as the leader?” He looked uncomfortable and shuffled from side to side. “Leader. I hate that word leader because we have been suffering only because of leaders,” he said in a raspy voice.
Days later the orange tent was pulled down. Harris had decided his work in Ichok was done, a decision the UN’s cluster head would not have arrived at so soon. Harris was nowhere to be seen. People said he was riding up another mountain, reaching people no one else had yet found. A leader in the land of phantom leaders.