Blog Archive – May, 2015
- May 25, 2015
There is little doubt that they have to come down. But how will priorities be decided? Who will pay? Then how will the formidable task of securing Nepal’s homes, schools, hospitals and offices proceed? In Kathmandu valley and beyond, new medical and business complexes, government centers, police posts, universities halls and libraries, temples and monuments, and high rise dwellings –from the most prized heritage sites to model rural medical centers --are badly damaged and marked for demolition. Some structures are visibly disfigured and non-functional; some lie folded into heaps of rubble; some appear serviceable although they are not. Whatever their appearance, the task of demolition and clearing rubble is immense, its implementation hard to grasp despite the great urgency.
Although the most widespread damage is in rural areas across the 13 districts (of 75 nationwide) adjacent to Kathmandu, debris removal and reconstruction may be easier there. Rural dwellings are by and large constructed by farmers from local materials and are one and two stories only.
Across Kathmandu one occasionally passes cranes at work. The most colossal machines that ever treaded the lanes and tracks of the valley, they methodically attack 4-story villas that once stood confidently in purple, red or blue coats but now offer less protection than a 5 mm thick tarpaulin pinned in a clearing beyond a local temple or strapped to an unsteady tree.
Those lumbering orange giants claw at brick walls of traditional modest dwellings; they batter glass facades of grand modern offices like Kantipur Publications; they hover above half-buried villas jabbing at their roofs. Heaps of rubble spill into roadways as the professional crews and soldiers move on, leaving residents to await teams who’ll somehow remove these piles of detritus. (Forget about rebuilding for now.) Somehow, in the confusion and clutter that is Nepal today, from their tented ministry offices, bureaucrats fashion plans about how reconstruction will proceed. Proposals seem awfully tentative to this observer; neither do they convince most citizens that a viable scheme exists, although some really believe that demolitions will proceed responsibly.
Not waiting for the engineers to visit them and eager to resume some normality, private householders are one-by-one reoccupying their rooms and shopkeepers are buttressing their dwellings with 12 foot bamboo, wood or iron poles. (It’s temporary, they say.) Others (residents or the army, we’re not sure) set a few boulders and bricks on the pavement to warn vehicles and pedestrians that something uncertain hovers not far above them. Occasionally a road is blocked by a rope with a bold red warning hanging from it.
Engineers are out in force. (The Nepal Engineer’s Association -NEA- lists its phone number in city dailies.) Local ward officials have invited house owners to fill forms requesting an inspection. May 20th The Himalayan Times reports that since May 4th 2,500 of its engineers are engaged with 25 international counterparts to assess buildings inside and beyond Kathmandu Valley.
One NGO working with these respected, and incorruptible NEA engineers is US-based GFI found that only 20% of 1,500 houses inspected were uninhabitable and due for destruction while 40% are safe to live in and 40% in need of repair http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/ May 21, 2015. (In which localities the survey was done is unspecified). An earlier NEA preliminary investigation (May 9, The Himalayan Times) indicated that 70% of houses in Kathmandu Valley (with several million residents) were safe. May 18, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared it could not handle the multi-story demolitions due to inadequate equipment and was thus reaching out to others for help. Whatever the figures, it’s a daunting concern.
Meanwhile commentaries are offered in the press and anecdotally about conditions responsible for these many collapsed structures: buildings are constructed on soft land without proper foundations; illegal wells are bored under large dwellings destabilizing their foundations; shoddy, cost-cutting materials are used by cheating contractors. Much blame is reserved for landlords who build-to-rent and thus skirt the rules (supported by permits from corrupted officials). These rumors are now endorsed by newly published investigative research by Himal (May 24-30, 2015) the Nepali language weekly run by the notable journalistic team of Kunda and Kanak Dixit). This excellent report names names, prints photos of rows of crumbling apartment complexes together with doctored building permits.
Reconstruction is manageable, but only if more quakes and the approaching monsoon rains don’t further destabilize shaky neighborhoods, create more havoc and halt work in progress. Regardless, it will take years for life to return to normal which is uncertain at best, and for most citizens, perennially desperate. In their foreseeable future, they have no sign that-- although millions of them will move out of their tents and settle into new homes and offices-- a stable and just government will do its part. END
Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np). Her latest book is “Swimming up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq”, U. Press Florida, 2007.
- May 19, 2015
“I want to be in the army”, replied Sophil quietly, responding to his father’s urging to tell this visitor about his future goal. I had been introduced to the 9-year old child a week earlier as he sat in a place of honor inside his parent’s home, accepting gifts and congratulations following completion of ‘vratabandha’, the Nepali coming-of-age ceremony for boys. His father Bhagwan Shrestha and I have been working on a teacher training project and I was again at their home to discuss the school’s schedule and how we might address the needs of staff’s and students’ families most adversely affected by the earthquake.
Surprised by his son’s new ambition, and with no history of military service in their family, the father pressed the lad on why this career interested him.
“Because our army rescues the people,” explains the boy.
In time, Sophil’s aspiration may change; meanwhile it’s undeniable that his current ideal is an outcome of what he’s seen and heard during these tragedy-filled weeks when the largely unheralded heroes of the earthquake have indeed been members of Nepal’s armed forces and police. They are visible everywhere:-- clearing roads, dismantling damaged structures, rescuing families, ferrying the injured to helicopters, redirecting cars from danger zones, sifting through fragile piles of debris and supervising foreign rescue teams, clearing rubble brick-by-brick and providing security in neighborhoods and at sensitive government and holy sites. Unlike the million or more Nepalese who have temporarily fled their jobs, or given leave because of forced closures of retailers and factories, Nepal’s security forces are currently doing double duty.
“They are the first line of assistance across the nation”, a colleague asserts. “Army and police are posted everywhere, even in Nepal’s most remote regions, so they are the first to arrive at devastated areas, help the injured, and identify the needy.” (Nepal’s military hospitals are currently filled with earthquake-injured citizens, many flown there by helicopter.) Although not equipped with heavy equipment essential to cope with a disaster like this, these men and women seem to be efficient, focused and dedicated. I myself noted their prominence on media reports and saw them at sites I visited. So I began to inquire further about the military’s status, aware that, in contrast to public disappointment with the government’s response to the crisis, I’d heard no criticism concerning military and police actions.
So selfish, inept and disappointing are Nepal’s ministries and leadership that from the time of the quake to the present, they are the focus of universal dissatisfaction and disdain, a source of national shame. From the earliest days of the tragedy, private local and international donors felt obliged to divert their energies and supplies away from Nepal’s government. “It’s the only way to assure fairness and to avoid delays, graft, and mismanagement”, notes one agency staff. Because of mistrust of their government, citizens have mobilized to arrange relief for hard-hit areas, astonishing themselves by their generosity, swift response and co-operation.
One former military officer argues that had the government immediately turned over food and shelter distribution to the army from the outset of the crisis, the entire situation would be different:--help would move more quickly and fairly, foreign assistance would be more efficiently put to use, and victims would feel more confident. (A minor item in today’s [05.19.15] press –day 24 of the crisis- carries the first news of this, although authorization appears to be limited to 'relocation and rehabilitation'.) “So why didn’t this happen?” I ask.
“Ah, that would have been impossible; such a policy might steal the glory and credit away from our politicians. They can’t give up their power.” It seems that despite their history of ineptness, ministers want to be seen as leading the rescue of the nation; different parties that make up Nepal’s feuding coalition of ministers compete with each other to show constituents that they and not others have come to their aid. (The result is internal bickering, obstruction and paralysis.) But isn’t the military part of the government and the Prime Minister its commander? (This status is not clear to many but my research revealed that the army’s supreme commander is Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal’s president; he hasn’t been heard from throughout these weeks.)
The leadership would still get credit, I argue. “The prime minister (or president) might, but what about other politicians, with each of their parties jockeying for the limelight? They can’t let the prime minister prevail. They don’t trust him; also his party (Congress) would take credit for any favorable outcome and use it to their advantage at election time. (Although no election is in sight because of a 9-year stalemate over defining a new constitution). Any presidential action would, I’m told, also have political implications since although the post is theoretically neutral Yadav is known to be a Congress party man.
Under the circumstances, and given the ongoing crisis of Nepal’s administration, could the military decide to assume control by force, at least temporarily to address this emergency. One professor I put this to replied that indeed, “some people are thinking about this alternative”. However there’s general agreement that this could not happen because of the traditional role played by the Nepalese army dating back to the establishment of a unified nation in the 18th century. Since then and up to the removal of the monarch in 2006, Nepal’s military has been independent of the administration. Thus far the Nepalese Army is known to be relatively protected from political manipulation, untainted by ongoing political scandals. “Our army leaders do not seek power. We are not like Pakistan or Egypt, or Turkey. Ours is a professional body with a standard that you see reflected in the reputation of our Gurkha regiments” who also serve across the world, one example of which is former General Army Chief of Staff Katawal, credited with preventing an assassination of the deposed king while peacefully facilitating his removal. That’s quite a record.[ A Schoolboy Looks to Nepalís Army with New Pride ]
- May 13, 2015
There’s a patch of Nepal I’d never seen before--it’s called Buspark or Gongabu, (‘cock-field’). Since there’s no guidebook available—I find it inadvertently on my search for Muna’s mother. She’s the woman left alone and brokenhearted when her daughter, Muna, our Amrit student, and husband were crushed in their home 2 weeks ago. “Where is Umm Muna and how can we assist her?” asks an Iraqi friend-- my anonymous, irrepressible humanitarian.
Sukanya our school director is concerned too—“We might learn more when school resumes and her schoolmates return next week”. Despite saying this, Sukanya, expedient, ever dependable Sukanya, is not someone who willingly delays. She calls Rita, one of our primary class teachers, and within 10 minutes, the three of us set out together on foot. Muna’s family apartment was somewhere near the school-- just here, just here. “Just here” turns into my discovery of the now infamous Gongabu.
I’ll soon enter another world although it’s barely a quarter hour stroll from our Amrit school and the famous Mehpi —“empowered-place”-- hilltop. This local prominence is crowned by Mehpi temple and surrounded with a modest forest that draws morning worshippers and neighbors seeking clean air in the dawn hours before city smog envelops us, and ahead of local traffic snarling through Mehpi district.
A lane leading northward off the circle through which Rita leads us is new to me. Well before reaching Muna’s neighborhood, it is evident that I’m venturing into an unhappy corner of Kathmandu where life is hard on any day, and still precarious, if not dangerous, after the quake. We reach a point where vehicles are prohibited; even foot traffic is unadvisable. Anyone without a mission here ought to stay away. People seem uncustomarily scarce at this midday hour, and those who are here seem subdued.
An unconvincing and unauthoritative barrier of stones and wires are tangled around a thick bamboo pole lying across part of the road. Rita steps over them boldly. So Sukanya and I follow, leaving a cluster of men among onlookers we’ll pass along the next 200 meters staring at the devastation across the street. A crushed taxi is motionless by the curb and heaps of bricks flank the cleared path we now enter. Frankly I’m ready to turn back, but Rita has her assignment. Confidently she points out corner pillars—“there, up, up further, through that passage there—see, see those cracks at the base, see up the walls, this building, that one too.” Open windows expose limp curtains protecting nothing inside. No posting is needed to tell us all of them are vacant, and although these facades show little evidence of damage beyond those menacing cracks, all these four-story structures are either condemned (red code) or dangerous (orange). Don’t go further, says one bystander. But Rita presses on.
Two soldiers walking towards us turn a corner and proceed slowly into a deserted street, notepads and phones in hand. I prefer to interview them, but Rita again invites me to proceed; Sukanya and I timidly follow. A hundred feet more and we arrive at Muna’s. The gnarled brick and mud mass leans towards us at a 30-45 degree angle, held there against another structure that’s upright but no less precarious. I’m exerting my imagination to understand how even a rescue team would dare to search for bodies here.
Her remains were retrieved the day after, but it took six for rescuers to find her father, (and a cousin who perished here with them). This detail, Rita gathers from a man seated in front of his shop across the way (the only occupied space in his 4 story building). And Umm Mona? “She’s returned; she’d gone to their village in District 3, (far east Nepal, maybe Illam) after the quake. She’d not been normal following the death of her boy 18 months ago. Want her number?” So Rita records it; we’ll contact her later. (I’m not prepared to speak with Umm Muna this afternoon.)
I’m obliged to proceed further only by the resolve of Rita herself. (Sukanya also continues unprotesting, despite her 79 years and aching knees). Not far beyond Muna’s, the street opens up into an ugly, hazy panorama framed in noise, oil fumes, stink and dust. “This is Buspark”, signals Rita, arm outstretched to a wall of corrugated iron sheets. From a gap in the gate, a row of buses is emerging onto the congestion of Ring Road to make their way out of the capital. We step back, but there will be no retreating.
As we wait for a line of 10 or so buses to lumber past us, Sukanya reads the banners painted at the top of their windshields— Biratnagar, Rajbiraj, Janakpur (east Nepal), Hetauda, Birganj, Bharatpur, Pokara, Bhutwal (south and west) --(I’ll check locations and spellings on a map back at Nirmal’s library.)
Ahhh: this is the long-distance bus depot linking the city with Nepal’s far flung corners. So I suppose it’s reasonable that what looms there beyond the traffic on the main artery before us is a migrant slum that’s Gongabu. Hardly an image to compete with those toppled UNESCO-protected grand temples. The Darbar Squares of the ancient Malla cities-- Bhaktapur and Patan and Hanumandoka centered in Kathmandu city-- together represent the rich ongoing Newar identity and culture. (Our Amrit alumni student 17-year old Ashesh accompanying me at Mehpin a day earlier gently remarked: “We have lost our pride”, adding “our heritage”—in case I didn’t understand).
These sites --Google will find them, but I don’t know about Gongabu; try it-- are much documented and appreciated for their art and thereby hold added value in the tourist economy. Already foreign scholars (Gerard Toffin, at C.N.R.S, Paris; Michael Hutt, S.O.A.S., London) and international agencies are writing and conferencing about the urgency and costs of restoration, with commitments already made, I’m told, by Germany and Japan.
Sorry, I digress.
Back to Gongabu where our only guidebook is oral—teacher Rita.
There’s more to come and we three hesitatingly make our way across the main thoroughfare and down a path following the open sewer that is the Bagmati River (!). (I feel sticky all over; behind my mask, my mouth is dry and my breathing difficult; my fingers are swollen.) Here I witness a slum city of hundreds of 6-7 story structures, endlessly packed against each other with hardly a street to distinguish them. Some post names like Pari Guest House and Morang Lodge.
Now I understand where those millions of migrants stay. Either they lodge here temporarily (where many are robbed, beaten or killed for the cash (earnings they have returned with, insecured in their backpacks and suitcases) enroute home from years of toil in Malaysia and Gulf states. Or, this is where their families rent apartments; tenants here are rural migrants who’ve abandoned villages to live as consumers off the cash those brothers, husbands and sons send as remittances from distant jobs. Perhaps some of those lads flying with me on that Etihad Airways flight 13-14 days ago have relatives residing in Gangabu. That is to say, they had.
“They (these apartment slums) are all empty now”. I pause and speak to a pharmacist leaning (masked like me) across his open counter: Where are they? “Their villages; they’ve gone home.”
It’s becoming clear—they left Kathmandu not only because of concern for their village homes. They are afraid to stay HERE, in these hastily build, illegally constructed, cramped and precarious code-defying structures. Whole blocks have collapsed, only sustained partly upright today by the buildings around them. And many perished here—the bodies of some unretrievable. So perhaps those laborers and families fled these death traps. Yes, I think so now.
Gongabu was already familiar to Kathmandu citizens as a migrant slum. It’s well known that these residential blocks were constructed illegally, that this area was known to have been a swamp with soft land (c.f. nearby Machhe Pokari-“fish pond”- is now a dryless place), unsuitable for dwellings, where wells were dug illegally and where utilities are impossibly inadequate. Thus, when other city residents heard about April 25th’s high death toll in Gongabu, they weren’t surprised. Tomorrow, who will dare to raze these structures--the government, the landlords? And who will stop these migrants from re-occupying? And where will these families go when they come back to the city?
Rita and her two sturdy companions return to the main road, skirting buses and trucks, scooters and cars for another wearisome half mile trek until we reach the junction at Machhe Pokari. A beautiful name, no? But I assure you what lays there is a bleak scene, with more scars from the quake.
(Why is there so much dust only 15 hours after last night’s storm and the noisy rain that filled our house’s reservoirs and sent my host rushing to the roof to manage his personally designed water collection system?)
I’ll meet Utpalla this evening; she’s Padma’s and Nirmal’s sister-in-law (living with her son, daughter and husband on the ground floor of this, their family house). Utpalla’s due to return from a more promising mission than mine-- to Dharmasatila town an hour from the capital. She and her Shree Shree Kuman (women’s) Committee members had collected funds to deliver truckloads of supplies to homeless villagers (all farmers; 300 of 310 houses collapsed; school is intact). I’ll learn that her 30 member committee teamed up with a Malaysian delegation that arrived in Nepal a few days back with 40 two-family tents and 350 sleeping bags, tarps, food, etc. (Sree Sree Kuman is one of the hundreds of private Nepali associations and ad hoc groups, who, despairing of the government, joined each other and friends across the country and world to carry out emergency relief like this.)
(No one has informed me of a similar government project. Although we can end with a promising note: i.e. the Nepali army and police forces seem to have been outstanding during these urgent, painful days. I’ve heard not a single word of criticism and I’m told they’ve shown themselves totally dedicated, capable, unbiased, and-- most significantly--immune from the party politics which has infected government relief obligations and angered so many citizens.)
Tuesday’s agenda: Musician and writer Nirveya kindly agreed to take me on his motorcycle to hard-hit Sanku village just 30 km from here. I know that Sanku residents have received supplies but I need to see conditions for myself. I need to get out of Kathmandu.
Bio note: Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz spent several decades conducting research in Himalayan regions. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np). Her latest book is “Swimming Up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters With Iraq”, 2007, University Press of Florida.
- May 08, 2015
Our night skies are still battered by the sounds never heard over Nepal before—they are the monster cargo planes departing after disgorging millions of tones and tones of relief aid. This should be a welcome disturbance. But given our tenseness, it is one more sign of the crisis enveloping us. Tremors too continue. Some stop us in our tracks midday; others awaken us from sleep, setting off sustained bursts of barking feral dogs. Tremors immediately following the quake were really upsetting—menacing—and remain never less than threatening. Gradually, against instinct, we accept advice from scientists saying these waves of the earth will continue to decline and are not, as first supposed, a resumption of the great upheaval of 13 days ago.
As I move through the city, I note signs of progress, if not hope. Not far from my residence, at the corner of Dallu Bridge, there was a sleek, orange crane probing earth, lifting parts of homes in search of victims for 3 days. It’s gone now. Every time I pass there, I note people paused on the bridge to stare onto the scar –a quarter acre crater of rubble, twisted iron, concrete slabs. What most startles me is the clash of terror and calm:—a regular line of buildings, attached rows of shops and residences, then suddenly, inserted among them, either yawning space vomiting its gnarled mass of brick and rubble, or a building suspended at 60 degrees, with innards of people’s private lives spilling out of cleft kitchens and bedrooms. Like a mutilated corpse suspended among a cluster of office workers continuing their routine.
To me that’s more unsettling than a field of crushed houses. Maybe because it speaks to the utter irrationality and randomness of the quake’s fury. The bizarre and threatening imposes itself into the normal. Tornadoes have the same effect, I imagine.
Talking about normal, life’s far, far from routine. A fraction of customary activity pulses through Kathmandu city. After endless complaints and apprehension, we appreciate those trucks, small and large, heaped with sacks of food, stacks of tarpaulin and cases of water loading at depots across the city, then setting out on their missions. Nirvaya, a musician and student of English, tells me he’s about to depart with friends for nearby Godavari to assist victims there. Dr. Mingmar and his Belgian counterpart have departed by road with a field hospital; they will deal with hill slides and impassible roads as they proceed behind bulldozers, then set up medical centers in villages awaiting help. Kathmandu residents emerging intact from their daze and disorientation realize that fellow citizens in those places, most within 100 miles radius of the capital, are today’s priority; they may feel heartened that they in turn can offer succor to others.
Foreign rescuers are fewer, although I suppose overseas media are plentiful. Nepal’s journalists are doing a terrific job in TV and print. I heard that NYTimes declared “Nepal is flattened”. If so, it’s untrue, and irresponsible. Why exaggerate? It’s bad enough. Here, most talk is of government ineptness—officials demand that everything be channeled through the government while its ministries are largely incapable of coordinating supplies or setting priorities. (More about government and governance later.) Meanwhile, some basic facts (I’m still a social scientist) starting with population statistics:
Kathmandu has as many as 5 million (possibly 6) inhabitants, not the 2.5M reported by foreign press (probably taken from official sources, since true figures would expose the scandal that is Nepal’s administration). Over the past 15-20 years the city has exploded with rural migrants; they’ve settled here, living on remittances from mainly sons and brothers (making up the 3+ million who work as unskilled laborers in Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi, etc.) (Source: Pitambar Sharma, “Some Aspects of Nepal’s Social Demography, Census 2011 Update”, 2014) These people left fields fallow to live as consumers, increasing Nepal’s dependence on imported food and everything else (from India and China). They live in poor conditions, but their presence increases property values and enhances the income of the original owners and retailers. Sound familiar? Kathmandu city is also home to hundreds of 1000s of Indian migrants, not really legal, but who nevertheless become an integral part of the economy.
As the capital’s population has quadrupled in the last 25 years, no new infrastructure has been built by the govt. We still live on a water-elect-waste disposal-road system build for a million or less. (Foreigners, including parasitic iNGOs, have their own fully supplied compounds. “Tamel”, the tourist business district serving the lower-strata foreign backpackers is a cluster of 1000s of curio, art and cloth shops, trekking suppliers, 2-star lodges, restaurants, etc. Those hundreds of cozy hotels drill private wells (illegal) to provide showers and western modern toilet facilities for oblivious clients.)
Foreign press may accept the 2.5 M figure since those internal migrants and Indians aren’t here at present. Many are Nepalese who, as noted, returned to their villages to care for families and inspect lands/houses. We’re told that almost all the Indian workers departed on busses and by planes provided by the Indian government. I don’t know if this exodus was encouraged by Nepali officials, ie: if it was a plan. But the result is, in the short term, favorable. During normal times the city is filthy, strewn with waste, choked by dirty air, clogged by traffic, etc. Electricity is normally cut half a day; (called “load shedding”, it switches from neighborhood to neighborhood for hours at a time in waves across the city with its schedule published in the dailies, and guess what—there’s a phone app for it!) Today’s depopulation greatly reduces stress on electric and water; so there’s less likelihood of disease (from accumulating garbage), less chance food shortages and resulting high prices, hoarding, and panic.
Municipal water supply is totally, totally inadequate anytime. One needs a Kathmandu guide book to identify and manage the categories of water—drinkable, teeth-gargling, bathing, cooking, dishwashing, clothes laundering, toilet flushing-- and anticipate the weekly hour when municipal tap (non-drinkable?) arrives. That’s 60 minutes- a week: Wednesday at 5 am in our street. This isn’t an earthquake condition! It’s normal during the 8 non-monsoon months. (Foreign visitors including NGO-types never face this.)
Nepal has ~28M people. That means one in five resides in the capital—a heavy load for a city with shoddy infrastructure. Then an earthquake hits!
Today, by their absence, we’re feeling the critical place of these city migrants in our routine. Because young men who drive taxis left for their villages immediately after the quake, taxis are few. It’s difficult to get a haircut, I’m told, since it’s Indian migrants who do the barbering, and they’ve left. Indians are the scrap dealers, gatherings and sorting waste paper and plastics for recycling; so we expect to see a resulting accumulation of waste in the streets in coming weeks. Indian migrants are also the main vegetables and fruit vendors who sell door to door and at residential corners.
(Remember the night-watchmen who turned me away from Mandep and Northfield hotels? That was likely because most service staff, village boys, had left for home villages.)
How many NGOs (international and local) do you think Nepal hosts? 34,000 is the estimate given me by Professor Rai. (Small wonder the government doesn’t function.) With this quake, NGOs may increase -- offering still more imported experts a handsome living, easy access to mountain trekking on their ample free time, and envy and admiration from folks back home. (Some of you have heard me rant about this scandal.)
There you are--basics to help evaluate international press reports. Meanwhile you can have a useful political sketch from my anthropology colleague David Gellner (http://theconversation.com/could-nepals-messy-politics-hamper-relief-efforts-40903 I’m still listening and reading in search of a voice-- is it called leadership?-- that might emerge at a historical moment like this one. Where is our Nepali poet, our sports hero, our film star, celebrated author, lama or priest or shaman, our mountaineer, our professor or millionaire investor, whose words will echo off majestic peaks and roll through villages, down terraced valleys to offer these 28 million souls the vision, the strength, the unity and motivation they need? A decade ago, in an essentially bloodless coup, these people rid the nation of an incompetent despot king, and with a death toll of hardly more than 14,000 over 6 years, carried out a successful rural-based socialist rebellion to overturn a one-party royal dictatorship and launch democracy (without US interference—in fact the Americans and British supported the ruler). And, don’t forget: Nepal produces capable, honorable dependable young women and men who earn respect wherever they work across the globe.[ Kathmandu Dispatch 2. days 8-12 post quake ]
- May 04, 2015
Revisiting a school I know well in Kathmandu city, I meet Tilok just as he and his wife, a school teacher, and their baby are about to depart for Darjeeling, NE India where her parents live. This young family is among hundreds of thousands of mainly Kathmandu Valley residents leaving the city to be near loved ones, to be assured that their home villages and uncultivated lands are intact and perhaps to recognize that those fields they abandoned for salaried work in the city and beyond now offer a newly discovered security. As a part-time journalist Tilok has been working overtime filing stories about the quake. But it’s not the quake he’s so eager to speak about. It’s his new magazine “Siti Miti; he proudly gives me a signed copy of the very first issue. It will be monthly, he explains, the first of its kind for the Chamling Rai language, one of Nepal’s 124 recognized languages. Only 10,200 Nepalis speak Chamling Rai and it’s never had a script. Tilok and his group consider this project essential to their ethnic survival and identity; they’ve been hard at work for years to develop the written form and prepare materials for their children’s education. A magazine like this pamphlet in my hand is a political symbol for the Rai people and will, they believe, secure a political place for them in the new democratic mix here. Tilok is thinking well beyond the quake, you see.
We went to visit linguistics professor Subadra. At 80 she prefers to live alone in her longtime residence near Kirtipur Campus. On Saturday at 11:50 am, when the quake struck she rushed out of her bungalow seeking safety. She tripped and now lies in a cot with a broken pelvic bone. Friends gather around her bed today sharing anecdotes from each of their neighborhoods—not only cracked walls and impassable lanes but the absence of any government visitors seeing to their needs. They report conditions of villages whose names I once knew well.
The assembly courtyard and playgrounds of Sukanya’s school, Amrit, have become a tent city for the entire MehPin neighborhood sleeping under tarpaulins, cooking communal meals. The school luckily had a diesel generator and retrieved it from storage to furnish light for the area, so essential during those first two scary nights. Like elsewhere across the country, schools will remain closed for some weeks. Amrit’s teachers and students have joined the exodus to natal villages. But Mokta, Sukanya’s granddaughter of 18 months is ill with an unknown ailment and that’s taking her attention away from the quake. She’s been rocking her all though our visit; it’s her first grandchild.
By night four, here and elsewhere, even families who continue to sleep in a garden spend a final hour inside their parlors to watch the latest episode of “Udaan” (flight), the Indian serial drama they have been following for six months. It’s the story of a young girl, 7, Chakour, whose story as a bonded laborer has gripped the entire subcontinent. I wonder if this too is proving a sense of security for families-- some continuity (or escape) at a time they so desperately need a sense of connection and routine.
I’m not very good as a deadline journalist reporting from the field; I found out that in Iraq in the 1990s. While dozens of international journalists were busily typing away at the Baghdad Press Center—(pre-cell phone) where we had to go to get satellite access-- I took days to mull over what I’d seen, cross check facts, and absorb the personal testimonials I’d gathered before I could write. It’s the same here in Kathmandu where a week ago, the 7.8 scale earthquake struck as I was packing to leave home for Newark International airport.
I gave no thought at all about cancelling, even though my visit was not urgent; I had neither a news assignment nor a humanitarian mission. I thought, “I’ll go as far as the plane will get me”. To be sure, there were inconveniences and delays, but anything facing me was eclipsed by those of the Nepalese. Suffice to say the second attempt from Abu Dhabi was successful. My fellow passengers were about 20 journalists and another 20 or so humanitarian aid reps, from Christian evangelicals to Medicine Sans Frontiers. The remaining 200 or so passengers were young Nepalese men (20-30 in age, from among 3 million migrant laborers outside) who’ve taken leave from their unhappy jobs in Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia to get home and offer succor to their families.
A larger aircraft has been assigned to carry those of us from yesterday’s two flights unable to land at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu (turned back to UAE), plus a new load of passengers. Somehow the mood seemed more upbeat than yesterday’s; passengers were loquacious, gaily taking photos of themselves in this more upscale aircraft. Tonight after crossing the Indian Ocean and India we’d again join a fleet of planes circling over Kathmandu Valley. But this time our pilot shared some wonderful optimism, announcing at least 3 times, that he expected to get into Nepal: “We have dropped from 28,000 to 24,000 feet;” then later to 18,000 feet, repeating “I expect we will land. I know how to manage”. Many of us in the cabin erupted in laughter and peered through windows looking for the lights of the Nepalese capital.
Within an hour of getting into the terminal I was pleasantly surprised to locate the suitcase I’d surrendered in New Jersey 58 hours earlier, found the sole taxi sitting outside Arrivals and directed its driver –the cost was irrelevant- to Tamel quarter where I was confident I’d find a room. At 10:30pm it was too late to contact Padma and Nirmal with whom I’d planned to stay, or even Dawa Sherpa who I knew would respond to my call at anytime, anywhere. Anyway, I thought, if their houses are intact, they would surely be occupied by crowds of people from their large families. Indeed, as I’d learn in 2 days, Padma and Nirmal were among the hundreds of thousands sleeping outdoors sharing blankets, huddled under tarpaulins, in this case in their own garden. Nirmal was also among perhaps millions who by day 2 had lost all the charge on his phone.
My taxi sped through dark, empty streets; we encountered no roadblocks, not even police checkpoints –perhaps all security personnel were seconded to damaged high-value areas. The only traffic I saw was a convoy of 4 small trucks loaded with what was probably humanitarian relief. I frankly expected to encounter chasms and fissures in the road, but the driver zipped along as if he knew where was safe and passable. Two hotels –Northfield and Mandep-- were in darkness but I knocked anyway; at each in turn sleepy security guards shooed me away unsympathetically: “no beds, no water”. Finally I persuaded the watchman at nearby Dalai Hotel to take me in—he originally apologized that the rooms were dirty and without sheets; I didn’t care (in fact it was very clean and in the morning, when I awoke at 1pm, I even found hot water flowing in the shower pipe.)
I emerged into the street at 2, warned by the hotel receptionist to watch for bricks falling!! I was only concerned by a sudden feeling of unsteadiness on my feet, a little woozy, like vertigo. It didn’t last long but would recur at odd times for the next several days. I recall Dr. Ammash, a cellular microbiologist in Baghdad in 1995 explaining how the depleted uranium from US munitions and all the dust of war and refuse, alters the molecules in the air—something to do with ions. It would have deep affects on health, she explained. So I wonder if an earthquake too can cause this air molecule destabilization.
I was also reminded of Iraq where, unable to make phone contact in April 1991, after the massive US bombing there, I determinedly directed my taxi to the homes and businesses of Iraqis who I needed news of; now, I find myself walking the familiar streets Kathmandu to confront the calamity engulfing this nation but also to locate the shops of friends. Jamling and Lhakpa’s trekking outfitters store is shuttered, but I find the bookseller Bidur behind his counter. Normally I can depend on Bidur to advise me what anthropologists are in town or what new book on Tibet has appeared. This time the mission would be different. END
Bio note: Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, anthropologist BNAziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001) all available through Vajra Books, Kathmandu (vajrabooks.com.np).[ Kathmandu Dispatch 1: days 4-6 postquake ]
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