By Tuesday, most Nepalis who had homes standing and safe to live in had moved back in. Offices and stores had reopened, even the tall gaudy Bhatbhateni superstores that pockmark the Kathmandu Valley like so many pimples. The open spaces across Kathmandu had fewer people living in tents and under tarpaulin. In short, life was limping back to normal. Or so we thought.
By now, we have become used to the intimations of an earthquake. First, there is a deep rumbling that seems to begin from deep underground. It is a guttural noise, as if the earth is clearing its throat. Then, a second later, the shaking begins, with homes swaying in the air like trees in the breeze.
At roughly 12.30PM on Tuesday, the ground once again rippled, sending houses and people teetering this way and that. Once again, it was like being on a boat in the high seas. Another massive quake—United States Geological Survey says 7.3 while the National Seismological Centre says 6.8—struck Nepal, with its epicentre between Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk districts. More than 60 people have been confirmed dead in the new quake and thousands more are injured.
For a country that was just beginning to try to put its broken pieces back together, this new quake has been devastating. Those who had cautiously reentered their homes are now back in the fields; the golf course next to the airport and Tundikhel have once again become tent city. And terror is palpable in the air. Those who had earlier rubbished hearsay of another big quake now don’t know what to think. In such a tense atmosphere, the astrologers and doomsayers are having a field day. Rumours abound as to when another big quake will strike and these rumours are finding new takers. No one wants to be caught off-guard. Many of my neighbours tell me that they are afraid of even taking a shower or going to the bathroom for long.
This time around, the damage in Kathmandu has not been as bad. A number of houses weakened by the April 25 quake collapsed, but casualties were relatively few, compared to two weeks ago. But Dolakha and Sindupalchowk, already hit hard, have once again borne the brunt of the quake. Most of the dead and injured are from these districts. More homes have collapsed and even more people are now homeless and internally displaced.
The search-and-rescue phase of the post-disaster response, which had been marked over, is now back on. Most international search-and-rescue teams have left Nepal, even though a 1,000 or so foreign military troops are still in Nepal. The government has now asked medical teams preparing to leave the country to extend their stay as hospitals have been overwhelmed by the freshly injured. Fresh rounds of relief must be dispatched and security agencies must once again stay on alert. Everything had happened in the aftermath of the April 25 quake will now need to happen again.
Still, things are not too bad. They could definitely have been worse. The response has been quicker this time around, though not thanks to the government. Local and international teams that were already present on the ground were able to leap into action. Even the grossly incompetent Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala, was able to hold a press conference within a matter of hours of the quake. The new quake has meant more deaths, and it will mean more work for all involved.
Three weeks since the big quake, Nepal has all but slid off the radar of the world. Foreign journalists who had arrived for the disaster have left after filing sensational headlines that screamed destruction and devastation. The headlines that are now coming out of the international media are no better than the dire predictions of the astrologers. Bigger quakes are coming, they all say. Be prepared, they all say. But what are we to do? The time frame given by these predictions is in the months and years. Are we to live in fear for all our lives now, sleeping with one ear open to any tell-tale rumblings? Are we to demolish the homes we live in now and build new earthquake-resistant ones? Are we to camp out in the open for months and years to come, just in case a big quake strikes?
It is easy for those in the West, safe in their homes thousands of miles away, to portend doom. It is much, much harder for us here on the ground to read these pieces and still sleep easy at night.