The story I wish I never had to tell

The Nepal earthquake is a big story for most journalists, but for me, it’s my life … thrown upside down.

Many ancient temples in Kathmandu collapsed or were heavily damaged during the earthquake [Reuters]

These days, there are recurring nightmares. On the plane from Kathmandu to London, I drifted off for a while. There were lots of crumbling walls, a deep rumbling noise, and violent shudders. I woke up frightened. All other passengers were sleeping peacefully. Flying miles above ground, I was not sure whether it was better to have the ground beneath my feet or not. Leaving my city, I thought, was the only way I could get over these nightmares – at least for a while – until I’d be strong enough to tell the story again.

The quake

Part of me always knew I’d have to tell the story of the big quake – and I always hoped that it would never come to that.

When it happened, the mind froze. I had just stepped into an art gallery when the building started shaking violently. I stood behind the door, holding on to it while everything around me thundered. People were screaming and running. They could not run in a straight line. Then, it stopped.

The mind works in strange ways. The roles as a mother, wife, daughter, and a journalist get segregated. As I fumbled to reach out to the phone, I got a text from my husband. “We’re OK.” A burden was lifted. I shot a text to my father. Then the journalist in me made me call the news desk. “Big quake … please find the magnitude!” By then, my cameraman was running around shooting the reaction. “Let’s go to the areas where the dust is,” he said. The mother in me said no. I wanted to go home and see with my own eyes that my children were ok.

As we drove back everything felt like a movie in slow motion. People had stopped on the road and were staring blankly. Some were crying. There were small cracks on some sections of the road. A local bus decided it was safe to go on. Another aftershock. Then silence again. Or maybe silence is all that I remember – an enormous silence in my head. I don’t remember the chaos, until we reached my neighbourhood.

In the square where we park our car, hundreds of people had gathered around. There was fear in their faces. I found my children – playing in the back seat of our car. The car door was locked. My husband, looking pale and chewing his nails, was searching for me in the crowd. Then another shock. A man was brought to the square caked in dust and blood. Someone said she was a first-aider. Bishnu, our cameraman, was setting up a satellite link on top of a pile of bricks. The aftershock brought a few bricks down. The whole square held on to each other, panicked. How fragile life seemed to be then.

Dragging the children, we rushed back home – running through alleys. Our house was built to be earthquake resistant. It felt safer to be home, and within a short time we were on the fourth floor of the house, filing stories, broadcasting live, while aftershocks rocked us.

The noise

It took a while for the noise to build up. For a while, all I could think of was that the vision of earthquake-apocalypse in Kathmandu had not come to pass. Most of the badly built houses were still standing. But when news started filtering in, I realised that many villages outside Kathmandu had been devastated. Even among people I cared for, much went wrong. My cousin and his wife both broke their legs as a neighbour’s wall crumbled on them. Their children were saved by seconds. A relative had a head injury and had haemorrhaged to death. My parents’ house is badly cracked.

A few hours after the first quake, when we went to Patan Durbar Square, it was hard not to break down. Many of my favourite temples had turned to piles of rubble. There was dust everywhere and people caked in mud from the debris were being whisked to the hospitals.

And I watched with a sense of pride to see friends, neighbours, and local youngsters rise to the challenge of rescue and relief efforts. The very next day, I saw some friends drive with relief materials to badly hit areas. They have not stopped – despite the second quake two weeks later that has undone many people’s nerves. Statues and struts of broken temples were being guarded by youth in the absence of authorities. Police and army personnel were stoically working – even while their own homes were in ruins. The worst of the crisis had brought out the best in people.

But it’s not been easy. We’ve been lucky to have supportive family and our children were whisked to the safety of the UK. Back in Nepal, when the second earthquake hit on May 12, something inside me snapped. Motion of any sort made my heart leap. It’s difficult to maintain a journalistic distance in these times. Image of the quake – the broken homes, the lost faces – all make me wake up with a fright every time I sleep. I’ve nightmares of landslides, and in real life, even before the beginning of monsoon, they’ve already started. The task of rebuilding is going to be mammoth.

It’s been a month since the earthquake and a week since I’ve been away from Nepal. They say home is where the heart is and the heart is torn – between wanting to be back to Nepal and the desire to keep my children safe from the shudders and crumbling buildings. While the Nepal quake is a big story for most journalists, for me, it’s my life … thrown upside down by one minute of the earth shaking. A week after leaving home, I get startled, every time a truck rumbles past.