Patience wears thin in rural Nepal, where quake aid is slow to arrive
It has been five days since Prabina Shrastha’s house collapsed on top of her best friend and her best friend’s toddler son, and no one has cleared the rubble to account for the bodies that undoubtedly lie beneath.
Police Officer Sagar Tomang, 33, a broad-chested, gregarious man who is the head constable of the Sangachok police, believes five or more bodies may be trapped under the house, which was close to street merchants’ stalls and across from a field used by local farmers.
“I have helped where I can,” Tomang said Wednesday of the effort to clear debris in his village. “But no one from the government has come to help us here yet, and I am hoping that that will change soon.”
The tragic story of Sangachok is mirrored in the experience of many small villages in the surrounding district of Sindhupalchowk, where otherwise picturesque green hillsides are pocked with wreckage wrought by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday. While international aid has flowed into the capital, Katmandu, little of it appears to have made it to outlying areas of this largely rural country.
For Shrastha, 25, the wait has been agonizing. She and her friend, Sanu Shrastha (no relation), were in an alley that ran between their homes when the earthquake struck. Sanu was carrying 18-month-old Shreeman on her shoulder. Prabina Shrastha was thrown forward into the street. Sanu Shrastha and Shreeman were left behind as the brick houses collapsed.
“I never saw Sanu or her child again,” Prabina Shrastha said. “Everything went completely silent.”
Sangachok residents complain that no one has come to help with their rescue efforts or to help account for the missing and dead. Clean water is scarce, people are hungry, and the many injured still have not received adequate treatment for their wounds.
Among the injured is Samir Giri, 7, a wiry boy from Sangachok with thin wisps of hair that fall like little black feathers against his brown forehead. On Saturday, Samir was attempting to race across a road to a field where his mother was working when falling bricks struck him in the head, slamming him into the rubble, unconscious.
His mother, Rama Giri, a 32-year-old farmer, ran to Samir, the youngest of her three children, and lifted him from the debris. Then she waited with him in her arms until the next day, when an ambulance was able to take him to Dhulikhel Hospital, the nearest major hospital, some 25 miles away.
Giri was told that Samir needed a CT scan, but for several days the hospital lacked power to run one. Samir still wears the head bandage he was given on Sunday morning, now stained with earth from sleeping outdoors in a makeshift tent community on the outskirts of Sangachok. He has ugly scrapes on his back and buttocks from the fall.
Since Saturday the hospital has received more than 950 patients and conducted 85 major operations.
“Luckily, the hospital wasn’t damaged and we have been able to provide all the essential services from Day 1, despite the three-day power cut,” said Dr. Rajiv Shrestha, a staffer at the hospital.
But with patients overflowing in emergency and post-operation units, even this efficient community hospital is worried about how it can provide quality service to earthquake victims. “We have a sufficient number of doctors and paramedics but are running out of stock of essential medicines, surgical materials and … beds and blankets,” Shrestha said.
Back in Sangachok, the Giri family home was rendered unlivable by the quake. Walking downstairs to the bed where Rama Giri and her children once slept is now almost impossible; the broken concrete stairs crumble and slide underfoot. Broken glass and ceramic crunch wherever anyone walks, and the back wall of the house is gone, revealing a sprawling view of mountain splendor.
“I love Sangachok because I was born in this village, and you can see how everything is so beautiful here,” said Giri, pointing through the opening toward a view of a stream rumbling through a mountain valley. “But now I have lost everything, and it will be so hard to recover.”
Giri’s husband, who works as a taxi driver in Katmandu, has been missing since the earthquake. Attempts to reach his cellphone have produced only messages saying that the number is unavailable. A family friend from Katmandu told Giri that he has searched for him throughout the capital with no success.
“I’m so worried about my husband,” she said. “But at least my son is still alive.”
Patience throughout the district is wearing thin. Residents of neighboring Panichaur, a village of about 3,000 where almost no structures were left intact, expressed rage on Wednesday afternoon at the lack of help they have received from the government.
Bibek Giri, 41, a high school teacher from Panichaur (and no relation to Rama Giri), said that he wanted to “burn soldiers alive” for not helping with the plight of his village.
“Everyone is hungry and no one can get to food,” Giri said. “I heard on BBC radio about all the aid. Where is our aid?”
Officer Tamang, meanwhile, is using his innate charm to help keep a sense of calm in Sangachok as his desperate neighbors wait for help. Tamang’s basement police station was obliterated during the quake and he now conducts business from a small metal stand on the side of the road. It’s also where he sleeps at night.
This has made him the butt of jokes, with several young women teasing that he’s “no longer a real constable” because he has no home or office.
Tamang takes it all in good humor.
“This is Nepal,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a tragedy and these girls find time to make fun of me.”
It is the deeper emotional bonds formed between residents in small villages like Sangachok that help keep it from descending into chaos despite the lack of outside help.
When Prabina Shrastha picked herself up from the rubble after losing her friend, she limped along the main road, searching the village desperately for her son, 5-year-old Pratik, who was missing.
He turned up that evening, unscathed, after Tamang’s men found him wandering through the rubble and brought him to safety.
“I held him so tight,” Shrastha said. “I couldn’t stop crying when I held him.”
Hayden is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Bhrikuti Rai in Dhulikhel contributed to this report.
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