After the quake
(I wrote this yesterday, on Sunday, April 26, one day after the earthquake)
Nepal slept uneasy on Saturday night, away from homes and buildings and under open skies. Throughout the night, the fitful sleep of those who survived Saturday’s catastrophic 7.8 earthquake was disturbed constantly by the earth rocking to and fro. There were small aftershocks for the most part, except for one that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale at roughly 5am in the morning. The Sunday morning sun rose on a nation devastated, its centuries-old history turned into rubble and its people scared into huddled masses.
In Dhapasi, Kathmandu, where I make my home, the mood was somber, but it was also communal. In the initial hours of the earthquake, there was a marked absence of authority, security agencies or otherwise. A few scattered policemen staggered through the streets, seemingly not knowing where to turn. It was locals who took the lead.
Near Greenland Chowk, a three-storey home had collapsed, burying at least six people. Muffled cries could be heard from underneath. Young, able-bodied men swung into action, venturing bravely into the destroyed home. They dug hands into the rubble, pulling out blocks of concrete and bricks. When wooden rafters got in the way, they called for a handsaw. When a concrete slab refused to budge, they called for a hammer. When a wall of bricks needed lifting, they called for a jack. From across the neighbourhood, carpenters, masons, and auto engineers brought the tools necessary. By the time a team from the Nepal Army arrived, two infants had been rescued, alive. The Army team rescued three more people.
Out on the main streets, it was locals who were conspicuously doing what needed to be done. When a wall belonging to the Army collapsed at Lainchour, nearby Scout members formed a human chain to help. There were locals directing traffic, comforting those overwhelmed, and guiding people to the middle of the road whenever an aftershock occurred. Security agencies initially were caught just as unprepared as locals; only, it looked as if locals recovered faster.
Of course, all this is not to downplay all the great work that the police and the Army have done. They too braved much risk to undertake rescue efforts. One young sergeant from the Yuddha Bhairab battalion reported that he had leapt out of a three-storey building when the quake struck. He displayed raw, swollen hands as proof of how he had landed. And yet, there he was, clad in a helmet and fatigues, digging out the trapped. Policemen in mufti directed locals and cordoned off sensitive areas. Tellingly, they also kept an eye out for unscrupulous elements looking to capitalise on the misery of others.
What was evident on Saturday and much of Sunday was Nepal’s, and especially Kathmandu’s, lack of preparedness for a disaster that so many had warned about for so long. But what also became evident was just how resilient and resourceful Nepalis are. As much as Kathmandu is an unfeeling urban city, it is also a cornucopia of thousands of little neighbourhoods where the people are just as provincial as they were in the villages. In my own neighbourhood, by evening, locals had gathered together on an open field, rigged a makeshift shelter on the wide lawn of a wealthy neighbour, and were providing tea, water and snacks to those present. Those who had cellphone service offered their handsets to those frantically seeking any sign of their relatives in the districts. When night fell, they all huddled together under blankets, seeking warmth and security in the press of bodies. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
In times of crisis, it is natural for people to come together. This is certainly not just a Nepali trait; it is a human one. But this sense of community becomes almost critical to survival in a state like Nepal, where the authorities are slow to act and often, just as confused and scared as everyone else. Besides the material support that locals provide to each other, there is the emotional and psychological element, especially when there is little reliable information and all that one can hear are doomsayers predicting bigger quakes with every hour that passes. Neighbour support each other; they talk amongst each other and act as a vital social safety net in uncertain times. In the face of uncertainty and fear, an ear to talk to and a shoulder to lean on can be as valuable as any material relief.
No doubt, this has been a colossal disaster. Thousands have died and the death toll, which stood at roughly 2,200 at the time of writing, will continue to rise in the days to come. The material loss to the nation will no doubt number in the billions. Then, there is heartwrenching loss of the Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan Durbar Squares, where monuments dating back centuries and holding immense cultural significance, collapsed into a pile of rubble in a haze of smoke. These markers of our heritage are now gone forever and whatever reconstruction that will take place in the months and years to come will doubtful equal the grandeur of the old.
There are countless lessons here for us all, if only we are willing to learn. A city is only as resilient as its people and no matter what we lose, as long as we have the people, we will rebuild and we will recover. Many of the thousands of deaths were perhaps preventable, had building codes been enforced and retrofitting conducted on a war footing. It is not as if we didn’t have enough warning; we just lived as if we were invulnerable. But those of us who have survived must and will soldier on, if only in memory of all that we have lost.