When disaster struck: Nepalese volunteers in aid action

A month after the earthquake killed more than 8,600 people, volunteer relief missions continue to be a vital lifeline.

Jay Kakshapati, 31, and Ajay Narsingh Rana, 33, get ready to leave for an aid mission [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
Jay Kakshapati, 31, and Ajay Narsingh Rana, 33, get ready to leave for an aid mission [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Sanepa, Nepal – Jay Kakshapati sorts through a pile of orange tarpaulins in the driveway of The Yellow House, his family’s bed-and-breakfast, in Sanepa, an urban neighbourhood just south of Kathmandu.

Dressed in all black with denim shorts and low top Converse sneakers, with tattoos of stars and Che Guevara on his forearms, the tall 31-year-old worked quickly, inspecting a few tattered sheets before setting them aside.

“We don’t want to give these out,” Kakshapati said of the dilapidated ones before loading the undamaged tarps on to a four-wheel drive vehicle headed for the outskirts of the capital.

One month after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, more than 8,600 people have died with about 22,000 having been injured. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis are now homeless, and volunteer relief efforts remain a crucial lifeline for quake victims. 

Kakshapati, some Nepalese volunteers, and a Frenchman started loading two vehicles with bags of rice, salt and UNHCR-provided tarps. The team prepared to go to Dolakha in the country’s northeast, the district worst hit by a second 7.3-magnitude quake on May 12, which killed more than 117 people.

Kakshapati will be riding his dirt bike. After originally going out on aid missions and having vehicles break down on landslide-hit roads, the volunteers learned to bring a biker along who could forge ahead and scout road conditions.

When volunteers head to landslide-affected rural districts, bikers go ahead to scout road conditions [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

The UN’s $423m flash appeal has only met 22 percent of its target through private sector donations, raising concerns about long-term recovery. The second quake intensified the humanitarian crisis – more buildings fell, the sides of mountains tore off, and people’s already-frayed nerves were shot.

In the face of slow government response and with the international community initially stymied by bureaucracy and logistical hurdles from reaching the remotest corners of the Himalayan nation, Nepalis and unregistered groups – most visibly comprised of young adults such as those from the The Yellow House – swung into action.

The B&B has emerged as a nerve centre for volunteer aid missions led by Kakshapati, his sister, photographer Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati, and their friends.

In the 10 days after the quake, their volunteer teams were the first to reach many devastated communities, said Kakshapati, even those less than half-an-hour away. It’s not just about delivering food, shelter and medicine, he said, but “calming the people down, reassuring them”.

“[There are] hundreds if not thousands of these initiatives going on in Nepal,” said Craig Sanders, UNHCR’s country representative for Nepal.

Sanders said he sees these alternative groups as equipped with valuable insider knowledge, but also working complimentarily to government, army, and international efforts.

Volunteers from The Yellow House “sprang to life as a result of the earthquake”, he said, and “quickly proved themselves to be very capable, very motivated”.

UNHCR has worked with The Yellow House volunteers who collected 2,200 tarps last week for distribution [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

When the April 25 quake struck, Nayantara, 33, who runs a photo archive called Nepal Picture Library and cofounded the photography platform photo.circle, was sitting with friends in an oral history workshop.

“I think because we were all in one place it was like a shared experience,” she said. Some ran out immediately to pull people from the rubble.

A few days later, they put out a call on Facebook to meet to “see what we can do”.

“People just started pouring in,” Nayantara said. “There were like 500 people here on day four.”

All kinds of volunteers turned up: finance and development experts, nurses, doctors, educators, artists, and backpackers.

“The spirit from the very beginning was everybody needs to try and initiate – find a need, find their own resources, fundraise on their own,” said Nayantara. Then there were “just floods of requests for help”.

In the first week they held 8am meetings and requests were tacked on the wall. Volunteers arrived, picked a request, and put together a mission.

“They’d try to source their own tarps, food supplies, meds, whatever and then dispatch on their own and then we would help with coordination,” said Nayantara. Friends in New York and Belgium started crowdfunding campaigns, and through these they’ve raised more than $92,000.

Volunteers stand among medical supplies at The Yellow House in Sanepa, Nepal [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Thomas Pouppez, a 37-year-old volunteer from Belgium, has been compiling data online that details the donations, missions, and trip findings, which he systematically shares with Quakemap.org, another local initiative, “so people can see where we’ve been, what we’ve done”, to minimise duplication efforts.

The group had completed 269 missions since starting, and they log their movements on their Facebook group, Himalayan Disaster Relief Volunteer Group.

Technology has facilitated their work, said Pouppez, but most of it has required old-school methods. In the initial days, volunteers held up sheets of paper with a destination and how many people they needed.

“[It was] pretty much analogue and paper, but it worked and it was great,” he said.

“We don’t know what we’re doing, none of us are experts really,” said Ben Ayers, an American who has lived in Nepal for 16 years and runs an NGO called dZI Foundation. “The need is so great and people have really risen to the occasion,” he said. “This to me, in my life, has been the example of what people are capable of.”

Ayers, who described his role as “an encourager”, sat in front of the main yellow brick building, a dining area and now the group’s headquarters. “There’s a million things going on here, and I don’t know half of them.”

Inside, it feels like a start-up company. People sit at their laptops and maps and snacks lie strewn across the communal table. Volunteers come and go throughout the day. Sacks of rice and tarps sit out front, and provisions such as canned beef – which can’t be distributed to the predominantly Hindu population – and a column of Italian sparkling water stand to one side.

A huge jacaranda tree slopes overhead, spilling purple flowers across the patio. Weathered Tibetan prayer flags flutter from its branches.

Nepalese and foreign volunteers are working through The Yellow House’s alternative aid network [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Nayantara, a friendly woman, leads much of the coordination and makes it seem effortless. Volunteers regularly approach her with suggestions or to ask for advice.

At one point an enthusiastic young British man asks her what she thinks about distributing building tools along with the aid. “This happens a lot, like people coming in with ideas and [us] just saying, okay, this is a good idea let’s go for it,” said Nayantara.

After the first two weeks, the group had begun focusing on longer missions to harder-to-reach places with members of their team who are trekkers and mountaineers. They also started working with trekking guides whose livelihoods have been affected by the disaster. 

Nayantara said it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Yellow House employs people skilled at navigating difficult terrain, and pays them from cash donations they receive.

Thinking long term, Nayantara said she wants to start documenting the aftermath of the earthquake to tell victims’ stories to the world, but also to “hold the government, larger organisations accountable”.

Now, more than ever, Nepal needs a stable government, said Ayers, noting volunteers have been inspired and are learning what they can do for their country when there’s energy and a clear intention.

Ayers said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the next generation of Nepali political leaders are civic-minded volunteers such as the ones from The Yellow House.

Kakshapati said he believes the earthquake has unified Nepal’s younger generation.

 Nepal struggles to rebuild one month after deadly quake

“We’ve learned how to get along with each other, coordinate things, get resources where there are none, and we’ve learned how to push ourselves to the limit,” he said. “We’ve learned how to motivate ourselves and others.” 

Nayantara said last week relief drops were winding down and the focus would now be on programmes for children and vocational-skills training so people can generate their own income and not be reliant on aid. With the approaching monsoon season, learning to build semi-permanent shelters is also crucial.

“That’s the plan,” Nayantara said with a laugh. “We’ll see.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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