Sagar Nepali, a sturdy, 11-year-old boy with warm, determined black eyes, wearing a dirt-stained black hooded sweatshirt, is playing with a packet of temporary tattoos given to him and his friends by their housemother.
He rubs a grinning green dragon tattoo onto Karma Sherpa, also 11, a skinny boy in a colorful Tom and Jerry T-shirt who waits for the image to settle onto his forearm before rising from the dirty ground like a bottle rocket to chase down one of his friends in a game constructed out of their imagination.
“Seventeen of us sleep here in the garage now,” Sagar says. “We are OK, but the orphanage was our only home, and we miss it very badly right now.”
Bal Mandir, the second oldest orphanage in Nepal, served as home to the Nepal Children’s Organization from 1964 until Saturday, when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rendered it uninhabitable.
Cracks line the walls of the building; a temple in front, where the children received their meals, has been demolished. Many of the 135 children who lived at the home have been relocated to Shiphal, another orphanage in Katmandu, which now is experiencing severe overcrowding. The others, 17 boys in their preteens, including Sagar and Sherpa, now sleep on the dirty floor of a garage in a nearby government building.
And more serious problems are likely ahead for the Nepal Children’s Organization.
“We received many of these children after the war,” said Madan Kumar Chouhan, 31, the program coordinator for the orphanage, which is affiliated with Nepal’s royal family. He was referring to the Nepalese Civil War, which raged for a decade from 1996 to 2006 and left many Nepalese children homeless.
“But we are likely to receive even more now because of this tragedy,” he said.
The days are temperate in Katmandu this time of year, but nights are cold. The children at both orphanages are running low on food, clean water, diapers, clothing, blankets and baby formula. Aid from state and local governments has been non-existent, and donations from the community have been meager at best.
“Everything we’ve gotten has been from people around our neighborhood, but they only give what they can,” says Asha Shrestsa, 40, the coordinator for sponsorship at the Nepal Children’s Organization. “We feel very badly strained right now.”
One of the obstacles for the orphanage in finding donors is its troubled recent history. In December, two male employees working at Bal Mandir were found guilty of the repeated rape and abuse of autistic and blind girls who were placed in their care.
Employees from the organization declined to discuss the incident, saying only that they hope to move forward “in a more positive direction.”
But the combination of the scandal and the earthquake has placed an enormous strain on both caretakers and orphans.
“It’s makes me so sad what’s happened to these children,” said Shrestsa. “They had nothing even before this quake.”
Sagar was in computer class at a local boarding school when the earthquake hit — he remembers his book shaking in his hands. Karma, like the majority of orphans at the home, was standing outside by the temple, waiting for lunch to be served. The orphanage, he said, began “shaking back and forth.”
“I was so scared in that moment I ran to a tree and held it, praying to God,” Sherpa said.
The children were ordered to keep away from the crumbling orphanage. According to organizers, the children had no possessions to bring with them to their new accomodations other than the clothes they were wearing.
They were accustomed to sleeping on a floor with 90 people in a room, but sleeping in an open-air garage with only a small tin roof was an uncomfortable change. The boys are noticeably dirty, and some are fighting off colds. Some are underdressed for the weather.
Chouhan, whose wife and two infant daughters are sleeping outside in a tent because of the quake, said it was “only by the mercy of God” that the children at Bal Mandir were saved.
“If it wasn’t lunchtime, they would have all been inside,” he said.
Lila Nath Sapkota, 35, knows the challenges these boys face. A worker for the Namaste Sweden Society, a nongovernmental organization, Sapkota was giving a lecture about Nepal in Stockholm on Saturday when Swedish colleagues told him about the earthquake.
Sapkota took the first flight he could get back to Katmandu to help children from the orphanage where he was raised.
“Don’t doubt these kids just because they are orphans,” Sapkota said. “One day things will be back to normal here, and you will see them — they will grow up strong.”
Hayden is a special correspondent.