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Villagers near Nepal quake's epicenter ponder realities of rebuilding

Families confront the painful task of rebuilding in Paslang, 12 miles from the Nepal quake's epicenter

The wiry young soldier, wearing an "I Love Nepal" cap and army shorts, said he enlisted to support his family. When the April 25 earthquake ripped through Nepal, he was at a military training facility a day's drive from home.

Jumping onto a bus, Bhoj Kumar Thapamagar rode the coiling mountain roads back to his village near the quake's epicenter, on a hilltop in sight of the snow-white Himalayas, where heartbreak awaited. His eight-months pregnant wife and their unborn child were dead, their 5-year-old daughter injured. Their house was a heap of rocks.

Under Hindu customs observed here, a family should sequester itself at home for 13 days after a death, but in Thapamagar's case there was no home and too much to do. The 29-year-old had to arrange for his daughter's medical treatment, sift through wreckage and help neighbors when outside aid was slow to arrive.

The family plans to hold a small ceremony on the 13th day, and soon afterward he will return to his army job. His family will need the money, he said; building a new home will cost more than $12,000, which in their farming village requires years of saving. He did not know how much assistance — if any — Nepal's poor government would provide.

A week after the magnitude 7.8 temblor that left more than 6,600 people dead across Nepal, and scores more in India and China, families are confronting the painful task of rebuilding in Paslang, 12 miles from the quake's epicenter in Gorkha district. Nearly all of the roughly 50 homes were damaged or destroyed.

It is a task made more difficult by central Nepal's rugged terrain — beautiful but notoriously hostile to recovery efforts — and a shaky initial response by the government, which has never faced a crisis this immense.

Salvaging scant possessions from the rubble, including metal sheets and strips of wood to be used in temporary shelters, people in Paslang said they did not know when or how they would be able to build again. Insurance is nonexistent.

Most could speak only of what they had lost.

The homeland of storied Gurkha warriors who helped repel invading British forces in the 19th century, Gorkha's villages still send many young men into military service. But Thapamagar was not the only one in his family with fighting spirit.

His wife, Sushila, was sweeping the floor of their home around noon on April 25 while their young daughter was in the dirt courtyard, imitating her mother. When the earth shook, Sushila, 25, dashed outside and pushed the girl out of harm's way.

But Sushila fell, and in her heavily pregnant state could not raise herself off the trembling ground. A wall of bricks crushed her and a neighbor's 1-month-old boy.

"If she could have run, she would still be alive," Thapamagar said. Their daughter received 13 stitches on her head but was recovering.

No one else was killed in Paslang, whose population is about 300. The death toll across Gorkha stands at a little more than 400 — far below that of the densely packed capital, Katmandu — but district officials said that would rise by as many as 200 as recovery teams reach the remotest areas.

The first small aid shipments arrived late last week in Paslang, bringing a whisper of relief to a village in ruin.

Bricks, stones, shards of wood and pieces of upturned furniture spill down the hillside toward a valley of pea-green fields, perfectly terraced like the layers of a wedding cake.

The two-story dwelling of mud and brick that Jun Bahadur Ranamagar's father erected 37 years ago was nearly ripped in two. Part of the ground floor had caved in and the wood beams supporting the second story were bent at a precarious angle.

To keep the walls from collapsing, Ranamagar and his brother rigged up two long bamboo poles as support, holding the poles in place with rocks.

The 50-year-old farmer methodically pried the tin sheets off what remained of his roof, saving them for a new house for his wife and three children.

His courtyard was strewn with rocks and stray possessions. A striped blue tie lay half-buried in the dirt, part of his daughter's old school uniform.

Ranamagar did not say what seemed obvious: A new home seemed like a distant dream.

"I don't think we can build a house of the same size," he said, his eyes narrow and forehead creased with worry. "One thing: It's too expensive. And second, I don't know if it's safe if we have another quake."

His wife, Dilkumari, chimed in: "There are rumors of more quakes. Maybe we shouldn't stay here."

The rumors have floated around villages like Paslang since the quake, Nepal's largest in nearly a century. Even the few families whose houses had survived relatively intact were sleeping under the blue gingham-patterned plastic sheets that local authorities delivered a few days after the temblor.

But there was a more fundamental problem than rumors: The families had nowhere to move. Buying land elsewhere was unaffordable for most, and would hardly seem to be safer. They could build atop the small field below the house where they grew maize, millet and vegetables, but then they would have no place to farm.

Nepal's government has promised the equivalent of about $1,000 for the family of each quake victim, but has not announced plans to assist those who had lived in the more than 200,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed, according to official reports.

Nor is it clear how authorities plan to clear debris from isolated villages.

Reaching Paslang, just outside Gorkha's administrative center, requires traveling a rough, hill-hugging road that would be all but impassable for the heavy machinery that has been deployed to remove wreckage from hard-hit areas of the capital.

"We are still in the emergency phase," said Gorkha's district chief, Uddav Prasad Timilsina. "People are sleeping under the sky. There is scarcity of food. We need 45,000 tents and I have only received 10,000 tents. This is a very complex operation and we are all working 18-hour days."

One family in Paslang managed to dig a pressure cooker out from the dirt. The steel utensil sat over a small fire under a tent, its familiar whistle offering a fleeting sense of normal life.

Crouched in the tent, 23-year-old Anu Sahi had her arm in a sling. When their house collapsed, she and her 21/2-year-old niece, Apeksha, were trapped under a metal sheet. But the sheet caught on something and did not collapse, protecting her like a metal cocoon.

She escaped with a dislocated arm, the baby astonishingly unharmed.

At the time, Sahi's uncle and neighbor, Raj Kumar Sahi, was in Katmandu where he works as a security guard. He was in an apartment with his son, Sujan, a soldier whose wife was pregnant with their first child.

It was scarcely safer there. The top floor of the building crumbled in the quake, but the men fled to safety and back to Paslang.

"We would have had two widows," Raj Kumar Sahi said. In Paslang, Sujan Sahi wordlessly hammered nails into a shed that would serve as the family's temporary home.

But temporary was likely to mean several months. Farmers here are busiest in summer, the cultivating season, and even those who had some money saved up said they would not build permanent structures until winter, at the earliest.

Although his father, Raj Kumar Sahi, planned to return to his job in Katmandu, he insisted that he would rebuild in Paslang. He found the capital dirty, having moved there five years ago just to earn money. His land sits in the shadow of Ganesh Himal, a range of frosted, majestic peaks that his family has gazed upon for generations.

"This is our ancestral land," he said. "My father's house was on this spot 30 years ago. Where else would we go?"

Twitter: @SBengali

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