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For Nepal's elderly, quake rekindles haunting memories of 1934

For Nepalese in their 80s or 90s, recent quake was deja vu

For most of those who experienced last week’s massive earthquake in Nepal, it was the jolt of a lifetime. But for Nepalese in their late 80s and 90s, it was déjà vu.

The magnitude 7.8 temblor on April 25 brought back haunting memories of the country’s last epic earthquake, a magnitude 8 shaker in 1934 that devastated large parts of Katmandu and other cities.

It was just past lunchtime last Saturday when Dil Bahadur Ranabhat, 95, was jolted from his afternoon nap in the courtyard of his old-age home near the Pashupatinath temple in Katmandu.

“I fell off the chair and tried getting up but couldn’t,” says Ranabhat. “Everyone was screaming 'earthquake' and moving toward the courtyard as the tremors continued.”

He was suddenly taken back 81 years to the big earthquake that shook the earth even more violently while he was tending cattle as a teenager in Syangja in western Nepal.

“This wasn’t as strong as the 1934 quake, but the damage seems to have been double this time,” said Ranabhat, scanning the dilapidated roof of the facility he has called home for the last 35 years.

“The houses were smaller, and there were fewer people, so we survived without much loss except for some dead cattle,” he recalled.

He said he’s been hearing news on the radio about people still trapped in rubble, dead bodies strewn on streets and entire villages being razed.

“I am worried I might not live to see this building and the damage outside being repaired,” he said. “After all, has the government done anything in the past? Look at this building.”

The home has about 200 seniors, and on a visit Friday, some were lying on the floor beside a heap of old clothes, under rusted tin roofs. The room was filled the strong stench of burning garbage. The most ill were sleeping on beds moved to the courtyard. Most of the residents have been spending their days listening to radio reports about the earthquake.

In Sindhupalchok, the worst-hit area of this year’s quake, Sabitra Maya Giri, 87, recalled the 1934 earthquake, which happened when she was 5. She remembered fearing that her infant brother, Tukendra, had died in the temblor. This time, Giri’s daughter came rushing to her side, worrying that she had perished. 

“My brother was in a crib under the stairs. When the earthquake struck the large vessel full of dried soy beans fell, broke and filled my brother’s crib next to it,” she recalled. “Our father was at a neighbor’s place, attending someone’s final rites. I began crying, thinking my 6-month-old baby brother had died.”

Her father came rushing home and picked up the baby.  “We tried feeding him water but he didn’t swallow, after which father thumped on the back of his neck. Three dried soybeans fell out of his mouth and that’s how he survived.”

Last Saturday, Giri was outside in a field when the earth began to shake. “I thought about the last big one, and held tightly to the pole on the side and prayed,” she said. Her 32-year-old daughter came running.  “When it stopped shaking, I told my daughter everything would be all right,” she said.

Bhaktapur’s popular Durbar Square was damaged severely in 1934, and last week it fell victim again. Harka Maya Kapali, 93, who grew up in the now famous lanes of Pottery Square in Bhaktapur, running around the brick paved roads of the historic town, witnessed both.

“I was playing near my house at the Pottery Square when the earth started shaking violently, just like it did last Saturday,” Kapali recalled of 1934. “Our entire neighborhood had crumbled, with billows of dust rising from every corner.”

She vividly remembered the collapsed roof of the 55-Window Palace and Vatsala Temple at Bhaktpur Durbr Square.

“I had never thought the haunting memories of 1934 would come back to devastate us again,” said Kapali. “Our house is in ruins once again and it hurts just thinking of how uncertain and tough the days ahead are going to be for us. Where will my children and grandchildren sleep? Where will we go?”

Rai is a special correspondent.

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