101 East follows one man’s mission to restore hope to survivors of Nepal’s worst natural disaster in recent history.
Jigme Sherpa’s phone will not stop ringing. Since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, the young teacher has been leading a relief campaign to provide help.
His plea on social media for urgent aid has him answering calls around the clock, making arduous journeys up remote mountain roads to deliver supplies to his students’ villages in the worst-hit district of Sindhupalchok.
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For many survivors, such civilian efforts are the only help they have. Political instability is hampering government and international aid.
101 East follows one man’s mission to restore hope to survivors of Nepal’s worst earthquake in more than 80 years.
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Survivor story: The man who lost everything
By Bibek Bhandari
On a humid afternoon in May, 28-year-old Uddhav Paudel sits, like a defeated warrior, on a pile of rubble that he once called home. His weary eyes search through the remains, reminiscing about his life before the earthquake.
Paudel is one of millions affected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shattered Nepal on April 25, killing more than 8,000 people, including his wife and two young sons. His maternal grandmother along with his brother-in-law and grandmother-in-law were also killed.
“I have lost everything,” said Paudel. “In a matter of seconds my entire world turned around.”
The drive to his small village in the district of Sindhupalchowk is striking – a stark paradox between nature’s beauty versus the power of its devastation.
The view of the snow-capped Himalayas, rolling hills and gushing rivers is eclipsed by flattened villages and collapsed homes. This remote region in north-eastern Nepal has suffered the highest death toll in the quake and 63,885 of the 66,688 houses were completely damaged, according to Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs.
Paudel’s village, perched on a terrace farmland lush with maize, is no different – only two of 35 homes withstood the earthquake. They were constructed using cement and bricks as opposed to stone and mud. Paudel digs for memories as he removes the stones, one by one, where his three-storey house once stood.
He finds a withered school backpack crushed beneath a pile of rocks, and a notebook scribbled with lines that read, “My country[‘s] name is Nepal.”
“This was my son’s,” he said, flipping through the torn pages. On the day of the earthquake, Paudel was in a bedroom on the second-floor, chatting with his sons, six-year-old Umesh and eight-year-old Utsav. Paudel was home for the weekend, from his job at a local bank in a village an hour’s drive away. At 11:56am, the earth suddenly began shaking.
But he says he had felt such tremors before and felt there was no reason to worry. So he cuddled his younger son and started praying while his wife Meena and elder son stood by. When the stones started falling from the ceiling, Paudel rushed to the doorway with his wife and children.
The next thing he remembers is slipping down the stairway as his house collapsed on him. Half-buried, soaked in blood, Paudel was severely injured. One of the neighbours pulled him out of the rubble. But he could not see the rest of his family. It took three days to find their bodies. His younger son buried outside the porch. His wife and other son found lying in each other’s arms, crushed underneath a cupboard.
“I wish we had not prayed and ran instantly,” he said. “Maybe all of them would have been with me here.” One month later, Paudel is struggling to cope. “I feel sad and lonely,” he said softly, staring down on the ground during a visit to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to see his in-laws.
“It’s a different world altogether. Sometimes when I am by myself I just feel why am I alive? But then I remind myself that I now have to take care of my mother who survived.”
In the aftermath of the earthquake, experts are warning of an inevitable crisis – depression. The World Health Organization has reported a rise in mental health problems following the disaster. But issues like survivor’s guilt and mental trauma are almost invisible in the government’s rebuilding plans.
In remote areas people are less worried about mental health. For those like Paudel, left in the villages, the more immediate concern is survival. Monsoon rains are coming and they urgently need to rebuild their shattered lives.
The Nepal government has announced it will distribute $150 per household as a part of immediate shelter relief. It has also promised compensation for long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction. But many fear bureaucracy and red tape will delay these benefits. Meanwhile, Paudel is not waiting for outside help. He has managed to find $100 to buy two bundles of metal sheets for a makeshift shelter. He says it might be his home for a long time.
“That was almost all the money we had,” said Paudel who already has a debt of $3,000. The family borrowed the money for his brother’s wedding, which was held three days before the earthquake. Paudel does not know when he will return to work or earn enough money to repay the loan. The future, he said, looks bleak.
“I don’t even know if we can afford to rebuild the house again,” he added. But it is the house his father built 28 years ago where Paudel’s memories dwell – especially the happy moments he spent with his wife and children. “I still think my children will be waiting at home whenever I return from somewhere,” Paudel said. “But everything has changed. There’s nothing left.”
Bibek Bhandari is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist. He has written for Al Jazeera English, South China Morning Post, CNN, Huffington Post, The National in the UAE and The Week in Nepal among others. Follow him on Twitter @bibekbhandari