Our faith in authority is fading as we start to rebuild Nepal ourselves

Nepalis among the debris of destroyed buildings in Sukute district of Bhaktapur, Nepal last week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Nepalis among the debris of destroyed buildings in Sukute district of Bhaktapur, Nepal last week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Saturdays are special here in Nepal. It’s the day we particularly look forward to, the day of masu bhat – meat curries and rice – and the day we make plans to do nothing. Last Saturday was no different. Until, that is, the powerful earthquake rattled the earth beneath us, killing thousands of people and reducing towns and villages to rubble and leaving central Nepal in tatters. More than 6,000 people have lost their lives and the numbers of missing and injured are rapidly climbing.

I saw a section of the wall that surrounds our building collapse as we made our way outside, petrified, to the only open space at a nearby school playground. More than a dozen people stood there looking at the tangled electric wires and bent electricity poles. As the hours went by, we were jolted by several more aftershocks. When pictures of Kathmandu’s historic temples, palaces, buildings and villages reduced to rubble surfaced on social media, the extent of the destruction finally began sinking in. This was the big one we had all dreaded for years after the last destructive earthquake of 1934.

Suddenly, all the headlines of the stories I had written,  and read, warning of a looming earthquake flashed before my eyes. What we had dreaded for years, but only discussed on earthquake safety days and the anniversary of the great quake of 1934, was unfolding in front of us. This day, 25 April 2015, would be the dark day our generation would talk about for the rest of our lives, like my grandparents did about 1934.

Although my neighbourhood hadn’t suffered much physical damage, I saw the fear on people’s faces – they had gathered in every open space, on pavements and on river beds. I wondered if things would ever be “normal” again and if we would ever overcome this fear.

In a country where prolonged political transition has continued to mar everyday survival for almost two decades now, last week’s massive earthquake has only added more uncertainty about whether or not we will be able to piece our lives together again. A week after the devastating earthquake, the death toll and damage in several villages still remain unclear; many families are even not yet sure of where they can seek help.

Yes, the destruction was massive and we understand that our government is cash-strapped. However, there is no denying that the protracted political bickering has put our country’s development on hold and successive governments’ failure to prioritise disaster management has undermined our ability to speed up rescue and relief, as we have witnessed in the last week.

Furthermore, the ripple effects of not having elected local representatives in village and district councils are already being felt by those who were spared death but not destruction in the earthquake. Many families are returning empty-handed from local authorities’ offices, forced to pick up the debris of damaged homes with the hopes of still finding their loved ones buried in rubble.

Patience is running out. Last week, I met several families in Sindhupalchok – one of the worst-hit districts, about 43 miles (70km) east of Kathmandu – who were all agitated by the state’s negligence. A local schoolteacher demanded to know why they had still not received a single tarpaulin sheet, despite the money and relief materials pouring in from all over the world.

Some of the people didn’t want the relief materials to enter their villages unless enough had been brought for everybody. In Bhaktapur, just nine miles from Kathmandu, community organisers who had built temporary shelter for families at a school next to the ravaged plaza of old palaces and temples refused to let in the local security forces. “The people lying under the debris down the road need your help more than we do, so please go there first”, one of the organisers flatly told the rescue squad.

These sentiments aren’t surprising given how little faith we now have in the state. Whether it was the landslide in Sindhupalchok last year, or the 2013 flood in Darchula in western Nepal, we have seen the government’s inability to help the victims live a dignified life in the aftermath of a disaster. And even now it is the communities in these districts who have been fending for themselves.

As I walk past the potholed roads of my neighbourhood, with some sections exposing the underground rusty pipes always being tinkered with by some department or other, I am reminded of how last week’s earthquake will accentuate already existing problems – water supply, power shortage, health services, hygiene, sanitation and security. A nearby bridge, damaged by the monsoon in 2008, was only rebuilt last year. If this rebuilding process is marred like several others in the past, the communities already living on the fringes of the society will be pushed further to the margins in the aftermath of the disaster.

Still, is there a silver lining? Despite the despair, we Nepalis have shown remarkable resilience and kindness. In Sindhupalchok, I interviewed an 87-year-old lady who had survived the big quake of 1934 and now lives under a tarpaulin sheet after her house was completely razed. Saying farewell, she offered me money and something to eat on my way back home.

For Nepalis of my generation, adolescence was marked by the decade-long armed conflict and then by the subsequent years of prolonged political transition. Last week’s devastating earthquake, and the government’s faltering relief distribution, has angered many of us. However, as grim as their own situation might be, many young Nepalis have come together to support those who are most in need.

Whether it is accumulating the data about those most in need or ferrying whatever little supply they can in their two-wheelers across the windy roads of Sindhupalchok and Dhading, the social media-savvy generation of Nepalis have stepped in to fill some of the gaps in our disaster relief mechanism on the ground.

As international media attention fades away from this little Himalayan country in the days and weeks ahead, I hope they and the local media will not entirely forget to report stories behind the staggering numbers, the people who survived and the ones still finding hope amid despair. I hope they will come back with renewed interest a year later to report on our road to reconstruction and prosperity.

But unless the government agencies get their act together and leaders are committed to rise above party interests, it will be a long, difficult journey for Nepal to rebuild itself.

Bhrikuti Rai is a Kathmandu based journalist.

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