"I stopped in Dhankuta this morning and spoke to a man whose house had collapsed in a jumble of bricks," a British aid official said Tuesday. "He just smiled and said, 'Well, I'll just have to start over again.' "
Three days after a major earthquake devastated towns and villages in eastern Nepal and India, the cleanup was under way, brick by brick.
Here in Nepal's second-largest city, 120 miles southeast of Katmandu, two Royal Nepal Army helicopters stood on the tarmac at the small airport, taking on fuel and relief supplies. Earlier in the day they had carried two doctors and a shipment of blood plasma and bandages into Dhankuta, a hard-hit district town in the Koshi Hills north of Biratnagar.
"I'd say nine out of 10 homes in Dhankuta were damaged, and one out of 10 were flattened," said the British aid official, Philip White, who works on a rural development program there. White had left Dhankuta on Tuesday morning, traveling on foot part of the way along the winding road south to Dharan.
"This great boulder, the size of a house, shook loose at the top of a series of hairpin switchbacks," he said. "It bounced down three levels of the hairpins, taking a huge bite out of the roadbed at each level, and finally came to rest in the middle of the fourth level. It will take a week at least before you can even get a Land Rover through to Dhankuta."
Despite the destruction in the town, White said, only nine deaths had been recorded so far. Most of the dead were found beneath the rubble of collapsed brick homes.
"It's the end wall that gives way first," White said. "They don't really get it firmly attached to the side walls. Then the whole thing comes down. And that's when people get killed."
The Nepalese death toll in Sunday's quake rose Tuesday to 497, according to Home Ministry figures. On the Indian side of the border, the government in New Delhi said, the toll in eastern Bihar state still stood at 200. The government denied reports by national television that 400 Indians had been killed in the quake, the strongest to strike the Himalayan region since 1934.
Here in eastern Nepal, the hardest hit town was Dharan. According to a British military officer, tents have been erected on a British base there to care for the injured and homeless. The officer said a British C-130 Hercules transport plane had been flown in from Hong Kong carrying medical supplies.
Shortage of Doctors
At the Biratnagar airport there were stacks of bagged rice awaiting shipment to the quake area. A team of Japanese doctors and Red Cross nurses arrived to help out in the region, where heavy monsoon rains fell throughout the day Tuesday, limiting air transport.
According to U.N. figures, Nepal has only one doctor for every 22,000 citizens. Most of the 18 million Nepalese live in impoverished mountain villages. Machiko Sakuraba, one of the Japanese nurses, said that malnutrition is a major problem in the country.
White, the British aid worker, said that poor families can send only one of their children to school at a time.
"Sometimes there's only one school uniform in the family," he said, "or only one pair of shoes."
Katmandu, the capital, reported no damage but was jolted by the quake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale.
Eight miles to the east, in the old city of Bhaktapur, 60 houses were destroyed and 500 were damaged. Deputy Mayor Chaitya Sakya said that seven people were killed in Bhaktapur. The homeless were sheltered in temples, schools and inns. Sakya toured his city of 50,000 Tuesday to assess the damage.
Bhaktapur was built in the 12th Century, the deputy mayor said, and the narrow, cobbled streets twist and wind as in a medieval European city, shadowed by multistoried red-brick buildings. Every block or so, a massive pile of bricks stands in a gap between buildings, all that remains of a collapsed structure. The sidewalls of the adjoining buildings have been stripped away, exposing the living quarters.
Nhuchhe Raj Sakya, a 63-year-old goldsmith, tugged at the deputy mayor's sleeve and demanded help to rebuild his house. He and his family--all survived the quake--are living in what remains.
"We have no tent, no money," Sakya said, "and, besides, I will not leave my property."
"The people are still scared," Deputy Mayor Sakya said after the goldsmith had moved away. "The fear still lingers."
In Bhaktapur and other towns, there were rumors of another quake to come.
"The Americans predicted it," a man in Bhaktapur said, adding that he had heard that story in the streets.
An aftershock that measured 5 on the Richter scale struck the area Monday, but the tremors diminished Tuesday, according to Nepalese seismological officials.
The Nepalese were getting on with their lives, deterred only by the steady rain.