25 April, 2015.
On a lazy holiday afternoon, my ringing phone broke the silence; I picked up absent-mindedly. The voice on the other end asked – ‘will you go to Nepal?’
It had been almost three hours since a massive earthquake hit Nepal. I immediately responded with an affirmative.
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport was not functioning at the time. So there was no clarity on whether to go by road or take a flight. I disavowed my laziness and left for office. Finally, at 55 minutes past 12, I booked a ticket for a SpiceJet flight from Delhi to Kathmandu.
The earthquake’s intensity on the Richter scale was 7.9, which meant extensive devastation.
By the next afternoon, the death toll had reached 2,500. At 1:30 in the afternoon, when our flight was crossing over Lucknow airspace, the flight captain made an announcement – all operations at Kathmandu airport have been shut down because of renewed earthquake tremors in Nepal, hence the flight would return to Delhi.
News of fresh tremors made everybody on the flight restless. Everyone wanted to get to Nepal as soon as possible, but there was no way. Sitting inside that airplane, a great modern marvel in itself, I thought to myself that when mother nature decides to get down to it, she can make humans so helpless.
After general chaos and confusion at the Delhi airport, the plane finally took off again after five hours. When the plane finally touched down in Kathmandu it was 10 at night. As soon as the aircrafts’ doors opened, a gust of cold air sent shivers of a strange fright down my spine.
The airport was engulfed in darkness and witnessed heavy downpour.
But crowds of people at the departure gates were clearly visible through the glass windows. This was the time when everybody was in a hurry to leave Nepal. But we had come there to stay, to cover the very same scenes of devastation.
Upon reaching Hotel Annapurna, I noticed there were people everywhere, from the lobby to the sofas and chairs. All of them were tourists but had left their hotel rooms to sleep outside.
Tired and exhausted, we abandoned all worries about the earthquake to higher powers and went up to our rooms on the second floor and collapsed in bed.
The next morning, when I stepped out of the hotel with video journalist Vimal Kumar, the city’s streets were engulfed in silence that closely resembled a mortuary.
The stench of dead bodies trapped under the scattered rubble permeated the air.
The Himalayan mountains surrounding the Kathmandu valley looked like merciless weapons.
No local help was available and phones and internet weren’t working.
After wandering for some time, I reached a relief camp in the Nepal Election Commission's Park. People had built makeshift shelters using flimsy plastic bag and bamboo sticks. Women, children, elderly, locals, foreigners – all of them reflected a pathetic sight.
Forget food, water and shelter, the people in dire need of basic necessities were lamenting their fates. One noticeable thing in that crowd was of people who still had houses standing, but fears of fresh tremors had driven them to live out in the open.
So much so that even the largest news channel in Nepal, Kantipur TV, had to set up camp on the road and report the earthquake from there.
Of the 14 highest mountain peaks in the world, eight are in Nepal and one of them is Mount Everest. This small and beautiful country in the lap of the Himalayas hosts nearly 5 lakh tourists annually, half of whom come there for trekking.
Because of the earthquake, everything was stalled and a large number of foreign mountaineers were forced to stay in relief camps. These tourists travelling for a specific purpose carry tents and food with them, so their condition was better than the other people in the camp.
I witnessed something extraordinary there. The sight of pet dogs running around among kids – most of them were white furry Pomeranians. Later on, I noticed that Nepalese are very fond of pet dogs and Pomeranian is the favourite breed.
Leaving the camp, I took a taxi to Bhaktapur, another earthquake ravaged area. Bhaktapur, situated 13 kilometres away on the eastern corner of Kathmandu, is known as the cultural capital of Nepal and is a tourist hub. Attractions ranged from the Lion Gate, Golden Gate, the palace of 55 windows, and an ancient Shiva temple, among many others.
I had been to Bhaktapur 10 years back during a conference of Indo-Pakistani journalists. My mind was full of hazy memories from the time. But when I got out of the taxi in Bhaktapur, my heart sank.
The unimaginable beauty had been devastated by nature’s havoc.
When I finally got a break from work, I thought of food. But there had been no change in conditions by the evening of 27 April. All shops and restaurants were shut. After a lot of searching, we found a roadside stall. Tired and hungry, we just sat down without thinking much. I don’t remember how the food tasted... but the price for a plate of rice, dal, and potatoes was Rs 800.
A large number of my fellow journalists were doing the rounds of far-flung areas in the air force and NDRF helicopters. So, I decided to stay on the ground. Rescue teams from 35 countries, including India, and journalists from dozens of countries were present in Nepal.
On finding WiFi signals, faces lit up as if a wandering ship sailing in the sea spotted a light house.
The death toll had crossed a thousand in Kathmandu alone. At every turn, mounds of rubble, workers involved in rescue relief operations, and common people with masks on their faces could be seen.
Apart from this, thousands of people in districts like Sindhupalchouk, Nuwakot, Dhading, Bhaktpur, Gorkha, Kavera, Lalitpur, and Rasuas were killed in the earthquake.
After much pleading, I managed to convince a taxi driver to take me to Sankhoo village. It must have been about 17-18 kilometres from Kathmandu. When we reached there after an hour and a half, my mind became numb. It felt like I was on the sets of the 1947 Hollywood movie Earthquake, rather than in a village. Collapsed houses and signs of devastation were everywhere. It felt as if someone had taken a road roller and razed the village of narrow lanes to the ground.
As I started to walk, the stench of decaying bodies stopped me.
Tying a handkerchief around my face, I inched closer. A local villager told me they feared that that four people, including a 10-year-old child, were buried under the rubble.
In Sankhu, 25 people had been killed and more than 250 were missing. The search was on, but the extent of the devastation dimmed hopes with every passing minute.
Life on the streets of Kathmandu started to get back on track by the fifth day of the earthquake, ie, 29 April. On the same day, I reached Thanapati village of Nuwakot district, 70 kilometres from Kathmandu. To reach the village on top of a hill, we had to hike up a steep climb of five kilometres.
But upon reaching that village nestled among blue skies and fluffy white clouds, we realised that life returning to normalcy in the cities was just half the truth.
Even six days after the earthquake, no aid from the government had reached the village.
People themselves were working on stumbling attempts to reclaim their fallen homes.
The worst earthquake in 81 years had taken the lives of close to 9,000 people in Nepal.
Around 3 crore people were affected by it in one way or another.
The cost of reconstruction in Nepal was estimated at about $10 billion, which is half of Nepal’s entire economy.
Despite financial aid from across the world, three years on, Nepal is still not fully back on its feet. Even today, hundreds of people are compelled to live in relief camps away from their homes.
(Journalist Neeraj Gupta had covered the earthquake- ravaged Nepal in 2015 as a correspondent with IBN7)
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