Print Edition - 2015-06-06  |  On Saturday

Despair and hope

  • A relief worker talks about his frustration with the government’s response and the problems, along with the stories of hope, he witnessed during relief missions to Sindupalchok
Despair and hope

Jun 5, 2015-

We all huddled together as the plane tilted and began its final descent. On the edge of our seats peering out, we found ourselves staring at a sun-baked Kathmandu; but we were inspecting for more than just bad weather. A veteran NGO worker, two workers returning from the Middle East and myself, a native expat if you’ll excuse the oxymoron, all looked out for signs of damage. This had been how we had been seated on our flight from Doha—a rather representative equation of the current affairs in Nepal, I thought. All our professionals and migrant workers leaving the nation in droves, forming an ever larger diaspora. The earthquakes were the last thing such a country needed.

So why were we all coming back? For myself and the NGO officer it was pretty simple—I had been able to rally some relief supplies and financial support abroad and we both wanted to fully understand how and what help was needed in the country in the long-term. Unfortunately for the migrant workers, it was a tad more complicated. Discriminatory working conditions and abrupt tenures meant they had no choice but to return. This isn’t news anymore, though; the world knows this. Nonetheless, a weak government and lack of any political muscle on the international stage allows this travesty to largely persist.

Perhaps then, it was only natural for Nepal that her citizens, mostly the youth, collect aid and do the relief work themselves. Whilst initially liasoning with members of my school alumni, I came across the Himalayan Disaster Relief Volunteer Group, and unlike most NGOs, it’s exactly as its name suggests—voluntary. It is led by the earnest Nayantara Kakshapati, who heads a team of dedicated and tireless professionals and volunteers. Based at the Yellow House in Sanepa, the team coordinates with other relief groups, including the one adjacent at Base Camp establishment, led by another charismatic founder of the Children and Youth First group, Haushala Thapa. The groups have sent relief teams armed with thousands of tarps, medical and sanitary supplies, clothing items, blankets, food and other necessities to far-flung places hit hard by the earthquakes. Their work is constantly updated and communicated on an online map of the operations that not only outline their reach for those who need it most but also show the transparency of their efforts. These are everyday people without a ready source for funds, supplies and training, and yet they give established NGOs a good run for their commissioned money.

But the work they do is naturally not without obstacles. When I first walked into these two relief engine headquarters, I was welcomed not only by a motley crew of old classmates, extended tourists and the general laymen who had simply set time aside from their daily lives to volunteer, but the prospect of endless frustration for those who wished to help. In fact the whole process is fraught with problems. It was rather silly and naive of me to assume that there would the absence of such traditional problems at a time of calamity.

For our relief missions, we rode on the bare back of pickup trucks—we started with the quake-hit outskirts of Kathmandu, in Kavre, and drove along the rubble-riddled Arniko Highway; we would be going to Sindhupalchok.

Sindupalchok was a scene of utter devastation. Images that the media and television inadvertently numbs you to is not nearly sufficient a vaccine to desensitise you from the loss and suffering you are bound to come across in the remote villages. While our own Nepali Army, Police and other foreign volunteers have helped us so much in the bigger metropolises, the sheer distance and difficult terrain of Nepal had made it far more difficult for relief workers to reach these places. And landslides, monsoon and diseases, anyone will agree, make for difficult opponents.

So where were our ministers and government officials with their Rs15,000  per household? I personally did not see a single figure of authority after we left the Valley, aside from a few policemen at checkpoints. So what of the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund? This is not to blindly criticise but to question the transparency of relief work and fund flow. The International community and our uniformed personnel have been of great help, but for those who had so little and now have nothing—where is their aid? The loss of houses, crops, livestock and severe injuries sustained can often make life unbearably difficult for the people in these isolated areas. One only has to venture outside of the Kathmandu Valley to understand what poverty can really mean.

My frustrations lie not with mother nature’s wrath, but with the unnatural bureaucracy and the hindrance to aid. This includes abrupt government policies that could stall relief work: relief workers having to obtain permission to build temporary shelters; the hundreds of relief articles confiscated or taxed for personal gain—from the grain trucks from India to medical supplies coming in from Bhutan; these incidents were all not unheard of in the first few weeks of international response. While hundreds and thousands of tarps and other supplies did get around, even then caste inequality, nepotism and political affiliations reared their ugly heads in places, dividing the people further. We have ourselves to blame for that.

Near the Chinese border, where a US helicopter had recently crashed, we came across one such village of Bhumethaan. The local inhabitants, who were Thaamis, were almost bullied out of receiving anything by the residents of their neighbouring village, who obviously came from a higher spectrum in Nepali society. Simply not being close enough to the main road was also their curse. With local health centres and schools all decimated, recovery was going to be very slow here. However, the locals kept their spirits high with their alcoholic brew of kodo, which they happily shared with me. Establishing community centres, I realised, would be key in the rebuilding process, as at least the two groups I worked with used them as mediums of fair and effective distribution and assessment, through local VDC representatives.

On another trip with the French medical team Medilor, I learned that without prior information on the condition and accessibility of these locations, even the best intentions could be in vain. As Valerie Mallard and her team medically assessed locals, prioritising children and pregnant women, things soon got quite chaotic. The truth was that apart from being deprived of any immediate aid, almost everyone was suffering from trauma. Unsurprisingly, there were reports of squabbling and even violence when aid was being distributed in such places. People were desperate, but often most of them just wanted to be heard.

While it may all seem a little dramatic, I can’t help but recall an anecdote recounted to me when I talked to a certain Bom Bahadur Jirel, who was taking me back to his village in Sindhupalchok—an area only just recovering from a tarnished reputation—about how long it took for him to get to school when he was a child. “A four-hour-walk,” he said. This humble man had since passed his SLC examinations and graduated from a decent college in Kathmandu. Most of us could learn from his determination. Then he had the audacity to thank me for “driving all the way” with their aid. How do those who have very little stay so humble? Perhaps they are just not as cynical as most ofus.

Much like when Siddhartha first escaped his confined and sheltered upbringing, for me with all the twisted issues hurtling around, even as I rode on the back of a dust-laden pickup truck, it was hard to feel optimistic while ruminating over the things I’d seen. But every now and then I did find stories of hope. Whether it had to do with roaming Sardarjis ferrying food around, or just witnessing the smiles on kids as they played around their Chinese Red Cross tents.

And although earthquakes will continue to come, our building codes and infrastructure can change. There is a newfound sense of unity among a lot of people in Nepal. Whether you are a French traveller with broken Nepali or a returning barber from Bihar, everyone has a part to play. As most relief groups shift their focus to rebuilding and rehabilitation, schools will get going and businesses will revive.

We can hope. In spite of all the adversity and the same old news, we can change. Sindhupalchok did.

YUMAASHIS SETLING

Published: 06-06-2015 10:43

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