Death, fear, grief: Nepal earthquake survivors struggle to cope with aftershocks and loss

By Sarakshi Rai for FirstPost here. 

On April 25 this year, 60-year-old Megh Ranjini, an independent consultant, was lounging beside the pool in the upscale Summit hotel in Kathmandu. Sometime in the afternoon, the ground started shaking and before Ranjini could figure out what was happening, the the pool had swollen into a shaky wall of water and then crashed on the people around it. “The water rose like you see in pictures of a tsunami and drenched everyone around. All my belongings were strewn around,” recollects Ranjini.

Nepalese people recover their belongings from earthquake destroyed buildings in Bhaktapur. AP

As the earth started swaying and terrified children wailed unable to understand the calamity that has hit them, Ranjini and some others around did what they assumed maybe safe – they ducked under the table, hoping they will be able to make out of the hotel alive. ‘Duck and hide’ is an idea that comes up in casual conversations around earthquakes and that’s what some people chose to follow when the quake struck.

Ranjini came out alive, but she was among the lucky few. People in a flea market a few kilometres away, seized by the vigorously swaying ground and screams of fear, squatted on the ground assuming that would be safe. Many of them didn’t live.

The first earthquake on 25 April cut Ranjini out from her home, as her apartment on the eighth floor had huge cracks and was extremely unstable like most of the buildings in Kathmandu are now. She since then had moved into a temporary accommodation provided by one of her close friends. But the second quake has left her unable to go back even there. Overhung wires and debris everywhere, she can’t imagine going back there either.

Ranjini, who had quit smoking a few years back, is back on cigarettes out of panic. “It’s getting bizarre and I’m back on cigarettes because of the stress. The aftershocks keep coming as faint stirring and I haven’t been able to sleep. It’s like we can’t spend a moment without fearing that the ground will start shaking under our feet and everything around will collapse.”

Ranjini temporarily took shelter in one of the camps.

IDP (Internally displaced parties) camps have been set up in the open spaces available and to help out Megh has set up a camp kitchen to feed the nuns and the families there. The menu: Dried fish eel curry, sambas, pumpkin and rice. Tent life is very different to living in an apartment and going to the bathroom is the hardest to adjust to. There’s no respite from the cold winds, sun and rain. It’s living life from day to day, there’s no sense permanency. She is trying to find accommodation, but there are thousands others who are left with nothing but the camps as of now.

Ranjini, like many, many Nepalis, would frequent Durbar Square, meeting her friends or shopping at the vegetable market nearby. On weekends, she would set up pop-ups where she would sell the pork pickle her mother made and other such traditional Nepali delicacies.

After the quake passed, people started taking stock of the destruction around them. Beautiful Durbar Square, that was the pride of Kathmandu was reduced to stones and mortar in a matter of seconds. Then suddenly panicked shout of  “Dharara gayo” (Dharahara is gone) echoed across the city and with shock people found the country’s famed watchtower disintegrated into dust.

The city was engulfed in plumes of smoke and dust and all that was left of the beloved tower was one lonely fractured finger pointing at the sky. As the reality sunk in, people began to walk like zombies, silenced by shock. All that surrounded them were collapsed walls and corpses. The ones alive had their faces caked with soot and fear etched on their faces…

A couple of weeks later, the busy Thamel district in the heart of the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu had reopened. Shops, restaurants, offices, schools were all up and running. Kathmandu’s palpable buzz was back and the people were focused on rebuilding the city and country, getting it back in working order. Life as many Nepalis knew it before the devastating earthquake struck on 25 April was slowly returning back to normal.

But just as people were starting to get back to their regular routines, another big earthquake struck Nepal, this time 7.4 in magnitude. Tuesday’s earthquake killed at least 65 people, injured nearly 2,000 and caused landslides that blocked roads and disrupted the delivery of relief supplies.  “Two steps forward, three steps back” is how citizens now describe their life in the shattered country.

“Thamel is a ghost neighbourhood,” said 24-year-old Italian journalist Jessica Tradati, who has stayed back in Nepal to help aid efforts.

Tradati had moved to Nepal shortly before the April quake and worked in a local newspaper from 9am to 5pm. She took Nepali language classes twice a week. Of the many things she loves about Nepal, one was the mind-boggling trekking opportunities it offered her. That apart the nice quiet dinners and the lively bars added to Kathmandu’s charm. Not only is Nepal going to take some time to make such offerings again, Tradati’s office too has become inaccessible – it has been declared unsafe to enter.

“Life was crawling back to normalcy before another quake jolted Nepal. We are now back in the panic mode. Everyone is back in the tents and the shops have shut down.”

Kathmandu is currently packed with aid workers and rescue teams. The tourists are long gone. Sadly, this will no doubt effect Nepal as the country relies heavily on their tourism industry for their income. But most of the earthquake survivors agree that psychologically the effect of the second earthquake has had a greater impact on the people.

“People are frightened. Their homes have developed dangerous cracks and it’s unsafe to return. It’s like fear has become a way of life for them. They don’t want to drive, don’t want to open shops,” Tradati told Firstpost on phone from Kathmandu.

However, she is perhaps one of the very few people whose houses are still standing and has electricity and water for a few hours in the day.

“The aftershocks don’t seem to stop only. We can’t even sleep in peace,” says Tradati.

American journalist Donatella Lorch, who has lived in Kathmandu since the past two years with her family says that “psychologically taxing” is the right way to describe the past few weeks in Nepal. “Everybody is a bit off,” including me she quips.

“Fear and the unknown is a big factor. My husband, son and I are safe. When the second earthquake hit my son, Lucas was back in school and they did drop cover hold and then in a very orderly way made it out (fast) to the football pitch. John and I were finishing lunch at Mezze in down town Kathmandu on the 5th floor terrace. The whole building started shaking and rolling. Screams rang through the building. People ran to stairs but we stayed put and held hands.”

The only thought I’m left with these days is “I survived another nerve-rattling Nepal quake,” writes Donatella about her experience to USA Today.

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