At a Nepal school-turned-shelter, lessons in resilience in quake aftermath

In the Nepalese town of Bhaktapur, famous for its temples, locals struggle to care for themselves after quake

More than two-dozen children gathered under a colorful tarpaulin at the Vidyarthi Niketan School here about 10 miles east of Nepal’s capital, trying hard to follow along as a dance instructor guided them through a popular Nepali song.

The teacher and several children lowered their surgical masks onto their chins to lip-sync to the tune, while a dozen volunteers and parents watched.

A new academic term began last week, but they weren't practicing Thursday for any school function. Classes have been suspended indefinitely.  Bhaktapur, a historic town famous for its temples, suffered heavy damage in last Saturday’s earthquake, and the school has been transformed into a shelter for almost 800 people.

“This is the only way to keep the children busy for a few hours while we run errands,” said Mahanta Dhaubanjar, 50, one of the community organizers who has taken the  initiative in absence of any outside help. Pointing to classrooms  stuffed with mattresses, blankets and a few sacks of rice, the former banker added:  “We’ve been managing everything on our own from day one, the government hasn’t even provided us a drop of water.”

People hauling food supplies made their way through the narrow school gate, past walls painted with rainbows, Nepal's flag, a national map and smiling children.

The families assigned to shelter in the kindergarten section slept under the colorful walls adorned with alphabets, numbers and nursery rhymes. The school had almost a dozen restrooms, some with low doors designed for young children where adults now carefully ducked their heads while stepping in and out.

Desks from the two-story, concrete high school building complex have been moved to the badminton ground outside where they are now used as racks to dry clothes and anchors to hold down tarpaulin sheets. An elevated platform under a tin roof served as an open kitchen with three cooking gas cylinders lined up. People took turns preparing meals in large pans.

Everyone taking refuge at the school has chipped in. Some have bought food, including the 130 pounds of rice being consumed daily; others help carry water supplies from their homes.

“We stopped keeping account of the expenses,” said an exasperated Dhaubanjar. “We are using rainwater to clean toilets and buying drinking water to ensure everyone is safe.”  

The school complex has three adjoining yellow and red buildings, with the badminton ground in the center and Nepal's flag fluttering on a pole beside one of the tarpaulin sheets. It is among the many temporary shelters being managed by locals around Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a plaza of temples, palaces and courtyards recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The historic area suffered massive damage from last week’s earthquake.

As of Thursday, the death toll in Bhaktapur stood at 261 people, but the numbers are expected to climb as the debris of several collapsed buildings has yet to be cleared.

“This has been our home for five days now and we don’t know how long will it be before we have our own roof over our head,” said Sarita Jonchhhe, 30, whose house just behind the school toppled last week.

These days in Bhaktapur, even normally simple tasks like powering one’s mobile phone are not easy. A few hundred yards west of Vidyarthi Niketan School, a huge crowd of people line up near a tarpaulin at the center of a square, waiting their turn at a temporary mobile phone charging station. Locals set it up using a set of batteries because the prolonged electricity cuts have seriously interrupted people’s means of communication.

Although some families have now moved indoors after five days, parents in the neighborhood are still worried about their children's education in the aftermath of the earthquake that has damaged many other school buildings.

"The fear hasn't subsided yet, our children are scared, we haven't heard from the schools yet about what they plan to do. Everything is uncertain at the moment," said Shova Thapa Magar, watching her daughter Puja, a fifth-grader, run across the ground.

The feisty 10-year-old said she can't wait to get back to school. "I had just joined the fifth grade, it had only been six days and then the earthquake struck," Puja said.

Periodic rain showers send people scrambling for cover under one of the last standing buildings at the square. While some unfurled bedrolls, others served piping hot tea and chapattis, a flat bread, to anyone who wanted them.

“This is the time for us to stay strong and help with whatever we can,” said Sanju Shrestha, a 26-year-old college student running to get another flask of tea.

But as supplies ran thin and government relief still remained out of sight, even the resilient community of Bhaktapur was beginning to worry about the weeks ahead.

“There is no power since Saturday afternoon and we have only received one tarpaulin sheet where 40 families have been cramped,” said Bhumaeshwor Ranjit, whose house is among the dozens that have been reduced to mounds of bricks and splintered wood.

“Where is all the relief and aid material we keep hearing the authorities say they have received?” he asked. “It looks like we will die in the absence of food and water supplies, rather than the earthquake tremors.”   

Rai is a special correspondent.

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