Holding out for Hope in the Hills of Nepal
Sabita did not notice anything unusual, until she heard her mother’s screams.
It had started out like any other Saturday, a day off from school. She remembers she was sweeping the front yard, while her siblings played nearby.
In the small blacksmith shed, behind their home, her parents were hammering and forging tools, from near molten iron.
Suddenly her mother was screaming at them, to get away from the house.
It was then that Sabita felt the ground beneath her trembling. Dizzy, she bolted to her mother’s side, and clung to her crying.
The hills convulsed, as the earthquake rumbled across the valley. It snapped trees like toothpicks, pried huge boulders, and hived off hunks of hillsides, triggering landslides, and sending thick brown clouds mushrooming into the sky.
Out in the open, Sabita and her family huddled in fear, as the quake tore down their home. In those few minutes, Sabita’s room — her toys, books, and so many memories — was no more. What she didn’t comprehend then was the damage it would do to her dreams of becoming a doctor.
In the district of Sindhupalchok, where the family lives, the quake struck with unequal ferocity. While Sabita and her family escaped relatively unhurt — falling debris broke her sister’s arm and her brother suffered a cut on his face — many others were not so lucky. Here alone, 3,500 people died and more than 1,500 were injured, leaving a district in distress.
Across the country, the quake damaged or destroyed more than half a million homes and buildings, crushing stores, and levelling government offices. In total, it claimed nearly 9,000 lives, and left about 22,000 injured. Many of the hundreds of thousands of damaged homes are yet to be repaired or rebuilt.
The devastation that day, 25th April 2015, has been so severe experts believe it will take about a decade for the country to recover.
Nearly two years later, tens of thousands of people — mostly women and children — still live in makeshift shelters. Of the more than 625,000 households waiting for government aid, only 3,500 have been able to reconstruct their homes. And thousands of children study in damaged classrooms that lie open to the elements.
The tens of millions of dollars donated to Nepal are gradually being channeled towards reconstruction, but progress has been slow. It has led to heavy criticism of both government and aid agencies, raising questions about stifling bureaucracy and poor planning.
Anirudra Nepal, a government official in Sindhupalchok, admits that “things are not moving as expected.”
But he argues there are reasons why people are not able to rebuild homes faster.
Nepal who heads the District Disaster Relief Committee in Sindhupalchok says: “Some (people) do not have their own land, others are living on public land. Many of them have lost their livelihoods and it is a big challenge to get them back on their feet; it will take time, resources, and capacity.”
Reconstructing earthquake-resistant houses requires technical guidance and expertise, and accessing government grants involves following time-consuming paper-work and procedures, says Nepal. He adds there is a “serious crunch of skilled manpower” for reconstruction, as many workers and youth have migrated abroad, in search of jobs.
The situation makes for an uncertain future, for families such as Sabita’s.
The 15-year-old speaks softly when she talks about what it was like in the days after the quake. She recalls the water shortages, and her parents having to borrow food, to feed the family.
With the school shut, and her textbooks buried in rubble, there was little studying to do, in the weeks that followed. When aftershocks would strike, she and her siblings would cry in fear. And for several weeks, Sabita suffered epileptic fits.
Two years later, on the surface, life in the hills of Sindhupalchok can seem routine, but it belies a life of struggle.
For Sabita, the eldest of four children, little remains the same. In her old home, she had her own room, with a small TV, some toys, and a place where she could study without distraction.
The makeshift one-room home that now accommodates the family is too cramped, so for most of the week her parents work and live with their toddler, in the rebuilt community blacksmith shop, an hour’s walk away.
Sabita looks after her other brother and sister, cooks and cleans the house, tills the family’s small field, gathers firewood, and feeds the goats.
School resumed a few weeks after the quake, but learning conditions remain far from ideal. Sabita studies in a classroom where walls remain cracked and crumbled. With the added responsibilities and no space of her own, focusing on school work is tough, she says.
In a developing country such as Nepal, it can take five to six years for life to regain some semblance of normalcy following a major disaster, says Renaud Meyer, Country Director for the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
He adds that while recovery was gaining momentum, “the adoption of a new constitution in September 2015, five months after the earthquake, led to political turmoil that hindered the rebuilding process.”
“Given the size and complexity of the reconstruction challenge, there is a need for innovative ways to channel funds from the international community for more effective recovery,” Meyer adds.
Despite the millions of dollars pledged to the recovery effort, aid agencies say more funds are needed to bring life back to normal for more than two million people.
Australia and Japan are among a host of countries, which have provided funding for reconstruction in Sindhupalchok.
Glen White, Australia’s Ambassador to Nepal says its support for reconstruction is aimed at developing stronger local economies through social enterprise programs, especially targeted towards women.
“Women, as leaders in their communities, have a strong role to play and so Australia has focused its work on assisting women and girls by creating business opportunities and promoting the education of girls,” says White.
Masashi Ogawa, Japan’s Ambassador to Nepal says his country is committed to helping Nepal rebuild. But he points to three issues that are critical to reducing casualties and damage in the future.
Ogawa says, investments must be made in reducing risk from disasters; that there should be better collaboration between the Government of Nepal and all other actors engaged in supporting recovery efforts; and that the country needs to ‘build back better’ to withstand future earthquakes.
“It is necessary to pass the memories and lessons learned from this earthquake disaster to the next generation,” he adds.
For Sabita’s parents and other blacksmith families in Sindhupalchok, that international support has resulted in a better community blacksmith shed. And it has led them to procure a store in town, where they sell the tools they produce.
The income, though meagre, provides a ray of hope for a new home, and for Sabita a chance to perhaps one day have a room of her own.
On moonless nights, the hills of Sindhupalchok are cloaked in a near-blinding blackness. Tall conifers stand like silent sentinels, visible only up close.
But under the beauty of a star-struck sky, the night gathers fears for Sabita and her siblings. They are aware they must be home before dark. The goats must be locked up in a shed, lest they be eaten by leopards. Dinner must preferably be done in daylight, as electricity is patchy. Once darkness falls, they lock their door and huddle under quilts.
In spite of the fears, for Sabita, the night brings a break from the hard labors of day. As she gets ready to sleep, the world around falls mostly silent. Somewhere in the distance a lone dog barks, the wind rustles through leaves, crickets chirp steadily, and occasionally there are sounds that are hard to place.
She would feel safe if her parents were home, but for now that hope must wait, for when a new home can be built.
Among Sabita’s yearnings for the future, is the desire to become a doctor. For that to happen, she knows she will have to study much harder. Right now that isn’t possible. Neither home nor school are conducive for the effort and focus it will take.
Yet, she wants to keep studying. If she can’t achieve her ambition of being a doctor, she says, she would like to be a teacher. What she knows for certain is that she does not want to be a blacksmith, like her parents before her. She dreams of a better life, of having a career, of going away to college in another place, and leaving the hills behind her.
Story by Cedric Monteiro / Photos by Kamal Raj Sigdel
UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.