UPDATE : Michelle’s Day in a Disaster Zone

Michelle : A Day in a Disaster Zone

It’s Tuesday, or at least I think it is, ten days since the devastating 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. The children’s school has just re-opened, so its business-as-usual for five of our eight resident children. However, Prakash, our oldest boy and a first year student in engineering college, is still here because his college is not yet open, and his end-of-year exams have been postponed until further notice. He came early to my room this morning to find out what today’s action plan was – to go with Soma, one of the organisers of our NGO (Non-Government Organisation), Sansar Nepal, and Rosalba, an archeologist from Mexico who is also staying with us for few days, to pack aid buckets again.

It will be the third day of buckets. During the last two days, all our kids were able to help, and on the first day, in four hours, we were able to prepare 150 of the 300 buckets, with the help of the Nepal Bharat (India) Friendship Association, and the Rotary Club based here in Pokhara, to be delivered to Takukot, a village in the Gorkha district. Pokhara is one of Nepal’s main tourist destinations, some 200km from Kathmandu and the starting point for treks in the Annapurna Range. Fortunately, Pokhara suffered comparatively little damage compared to other areas of Nepal. However, in the Gorkha district, which is midway between Pokhara and Kathmandu, and in Dading, Sindhupalchowk, in and around Kathmandu itself, and in the popular trekking areas of Langtang and Everest, there is great destruction and many lives have been lost. And the continuous hum of rescue helicopters taking off and landing at the airport close to our house serves as a constant reminder of the dramas taking place elsewhere in Nepal.

Yesterday we packed again, production-line-style: 1 bucket filled with 1 water jug, 1 shawl, 2 lungis (sarongs), 1 pack of dalmuth (Bombay mix), topped with a 5kg bag of beaten rice, which requires no cooking. All this wrapped in a warm blanket, protected by 2 plastic bags, then 2 blanket-clad bundles packed into a rice sack and tied with string ready to survive the bumpy journey up to the villages. Work ground to a halt when the blankets ran out: a government official needed them more, we were told. So back we went today to pack the remaining 70 buckets. Delivery is scheduled for tomorrow, but in this state of emergency there are many variables and we can’t count on it. Delievery may be by helicopter, but more likely by jeep. If so, Soma and I will go along to help.

I am taking a break today – a friend reminded me of the advice to put on one’s own oxygen mask first in an aeroplane, before attending to children or dependants. If we don’t look after ourselves, we won’t be in a position to help others, and I am exhausted.

Now Manju, our eldest girl who is also in her first year at a local college, appears in my room after the others have left (she was studying for her end-of-year exams late into the night) and reports for duty. I send her with her bus fare to join the bucket brigade in the town. (The packing takes place in a yard and outhouse behind a fabric shop owned by the Vice President of the Rotary club.)

A few minutes later Pastor John (from the church that some of our children attend) arrives, and returns to me the 30,000 rupees (USD 300) which we had lent him three days ago to finish off shopping for supplies for the relief mission that he and members of the church undertook. Sansar Nepal had already contributed 28,000 rupees-worth of relief supplies towards this joint effort, but he was unable to access money sent via Western Union from donors abroad, and so came to us for a loan.

Prakash alone has collected 25,000 rupees from his college mates, has donated his own savings of 700 rupees (saved at a rate of 5 rupees  day from his lunch allowance), and has played a key role in the organisation of the relief effort along with three of his young friends.

It runs in the family. Roshan, Prakash’s older brother, who is the manager of our house and chairman of the Sansar Nepal NGO, drove with Aaditya, another young Nepali who manages a children’s home close to ours, to deliver relief supplies donated by our NGO’s. This was shortly after the quake, and having delivered these supplies, Roshan then volunteered at the Israeli field hospital in Kathmandu as a porter and interpreter.

Back in Pokhara I take the 30,000 rupees, enquire about the next relief drive and promise our support, then manage to catch Manju before she leaves with instructions to pay this money into the bank account of the Helping Hands group based in Kathmandu, whose relief work Sansar Nepal is also supporting. This done, I return to the numerous emails and Facebook messages which are pouring in from around the world expressing sympathy and concern, many also offering cash donations, which at this time are essential for the local relief efforts which we are supporting, and begin to answer them. On Facebook sadly there are reports of international aid piling up at the airport and borders, which cannot be distributed to the desperate victims due to lack of organisation, and (unbelievably) custom duties and taxes being levied by government authorities from the aid suppliers!

We are also hearing reports of delivery trucks being hijacked as desperate villagers try to grab whatever they can before the supplies are delivered elsewhere. Likewise, there are stories of well-intentioned but haphazard relief drives where some villages receive aid from several sources, whilst others receive nothing, and a free-for-all ensues when a relief jeep unloads its supplies.

It’s a desperate situation, but planning, inside knowledge and contacts are essential. It’s hard to know what to do for the best, and whom to trust. We talk to many people, receive many requests for help and have to decide whom to support. In the end, we go with the people we know and trust, like Rishi Paudel, a long time friend and known humanitarian, the owner of Peace Eye Guest House, who was first on the scene in the Gorkha district two days after the earthquake, delivering supplies bought with his own money. Likewise Madan Sharma, owner of Vardan Resort, who has supported a rural village school for a number of years, who connected us with the Nepal Bharat Association, and who contributed his own money. We know we can trust them, not only their integrity but also their insider knowledge of what is happening in the badly-hit areas, and how to go about distributing the aid safely and fairly. We have been told that we cannot go to certain areas because our safety cannot be vouched for, such is the desperation.

Other trusted friends are Govinda, senior executive of Civil Bank (Kathmandu) and his wife Bimala who runs a school. Both are long-term friends and well-known humanitarians who have founded a relief group called Helping Hands, which we are supporting. We are also assisting a number of young Nepalis recommended to us, and who are launching private initiatives to help their villages. We want to encourage and empower the younger generation of Nepalis to become socially-active and break out of the passivity which has been one legacy of the centuries-long, absolute monarchy which ended in 2006 with the formation of the first democracy Nepal has ever known – a democracy in word only. In reality it is a disastrous mish-mash of 73 political parties with no experience of running a country. Under these circumstances it’s no surprise that the handling of this situation has been so poor and ineffectual.

The phone rings: its Siroj, the owner of a small restaurant in Lakeside. He is currently building a retreat centre and Ayurvedic farm just outside Pokhara, on a large piece of land he has inherited from his grandfather. He is typical of the new generation of young Nepalis who wish to improve life for their fellow countrymen as well as for themselves. At his centre he plans to offer yoga teacher training and courses on organic farming and Ayurveda free-of-charge to interested, young Nepali people. Right now, his building project is on hold as he plans to get a relief mission together to help a badly hit village in a remote part of Sindhupalchowk, one of the main districts affected. Can we help him? Yes, we will try. But we need details – which village, how many homes, how many people, how many homes gone, has anybody brought aid, what will he take, do they need tents (there are none left in Pokhara) how will he deliver, whose vehicle, who will drive, when, who will meet the jeep and be responsible for distribution, how much will it cost, how much has he collected already? Etc., etc. We arrange to meet later today.

I put down the phone and resolve to take a nap. Tomorrow will be a big day if we are driving to the villages to deliver the buckets. But it’s 4.15pm already. Our kids will be home from school in 15 minutes. There will be homework to advise on, more thank you cards to write, more messages coming in from all over the world to respond to – don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful, loving and supportive, and they truly kept me going during the 36 hours when I wasn’t sure if my daughter, caught in a bus mid-way between Pokhara and Kathmandu when the quake happened, was alive or dead (she is alive, thank God!) – but it doesn’t look like the nap will happen.

In eight days time, all being well, I will be back in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the earth doesn’t tend to shake and houses rarely fall down. In a few weeks time, it will all seem like a dream. Sansar Nepal will continue to support relief efforts on the ground, with the help of Soma, bless him, who will stay on in Pokhara for a while longer, as his visa is still good. My heart will still be with the people of Nepal, and I shall continue to work with our family and friends here in Nepal as the relief effort continues and the rebuilding begins. Many schools (more than 600 I have heard) have been destroyed. Many children will have lost parents and the possibility of an education. As an educational NGO which supports children, I foresee that Sansar Nepal will play an important role in this area in the coming months and years.

As the Phoenix rises up out of the fire, so I believe Nepal will arise and recreate herself as a better Nepal, with the help of many friends and Nepalophiles around the world, but mainly through the drive and impetus of the new Nepalis who will hopefully take matters into their own hands, as they have done during the disaster. I believe that they will be angry, and rightly so. They will ensure that Nepal will be prepared should another such earthquake occur, as is likely in time, and they will use this tragedy as a spring board to create a better and fairer society where it will no longer be the poor who always suffer, whilst some of the rich and powerful continue to line their pockets.

I will be back to Pokhara in October and I know that, as always, I will be impressed by what has been accomplished and by the perennial beauty of both the country and its people, that no earthquake can destroy. I consider myself blessed to have been here during these dark days, because they say that it is always darkest before dawn, and I will also be here, God willing, to experience the dawn!


Photos to follow shortly.