Print Edition - 2016-04-23  |  On Saturday

Aftershocks in the fourth estate

- Suman Malla, Manish Gautam, Binod Ghimire, Anup Ojha, Kathmandu

Apr 23, 2016-

On April 25, 2015—that unsuspecting Saturday—the papers were upbeat about the country’s tourism prospects; China had been projected to edge out India as the number one tourist source and a feature article celebrated eco-tourism, which had been on the upswing for a decade. Baba Ramdev was in the Capital and scenes of his mega yoga camp at Tundikhel were splashed across all national broadsheets. The Nepali women’s U-14 team had just defeated India and was inching closer to their second consecutive AFC final. Then at 11:56am, a 7.9M earthquake rattled through the country, changing everything. After the initial fear subsided, it became clear that life had to move on—and quickly. The scale of the disaster demanded urgent action and security personnel and the citizenry took to the rubble trying to rescue who and what they could. With the phone lines jammed by the sheer volume of calls being placed and the internet down along with the power lines, people scrambled to get hold of radios to tune in to the news pouring in from across the country. In times of chaos the flow of information is critical, and journalists—working in print and broadcast—responded to the call to action in stride. Working out of the streets and makeshift offices, they 

set out to sift through the flood of information, trying to make what sense they could, with little regard for their own wellbeing. These are their stories:

Confronting Death

On April 25, 2015, when the earthquake came, I, like most others, was caught completely off guard. After the initial fear and confusion subsided, I grabbed a camera and a notebook and headed straight for Bir Hospital. 

En route, I witnessed Sundhara in utter chaos. People were scrambling through the debris trying to pull out those that had been trapped underneath. Others, in shock, were wailing and crying in the streets. 

The Trauma Center at Bir Hospital had just started receiving the first wave of those injured. Patients who had already been admitted before the quake were being evacuated to make room for the flood of patients that were arriving. The chaos was all-consuming—the dead and the dying strewn everywhere. I had been reporting on health issues for over five years, yet in all those years I had not had to confront death like this—severed and crushed limbs, limbs dangling by the skin, crushed skulls oozing grey matter. Then there were those severely traumatised—crying, fainting, with many breaking down completely.  

In the next weeks, I would visit other hospitals and write stories on the treatment, disability and many other aspects, including dead body management, yet those scenes at the Trauma Centre remain vivid like they had only transpired yesterday.

Manish Gautam
Public health beat,
The Kathmandu Post

Cameras, but no aid

On May 7, 2015, nearly two weeks after the quake, the Nepal Army made an arrangement for a chopper to ferry correspondents to Dhumthang VDC, in Sindhupalchok—one of worst hit villages in the district. An army squad had reached the area, on foot, two days prior, which had been the only response from the government to the village at the time.

Though the Army had helped the villagers with first-aid treatment, the residents were infuriated by the lack of aid. No sooner had the chopper landed; locals surrounded the helipad hoping it came with food and other relief materials. Once they realised that it was carrying journalists, they vented their anger at the army personnel, accusing them of misusing the chopper. As a scribe, that moment was incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I felt it a duty to report on the suffering, if not anything, then to highlight the need for immediate distribution of aid in these remote villages. On the other hand, the guilt that the chopper could have ferried aid instead of us was equally consuming.  

I still remember Thule Kami, a 58-year-old local, saying, “Every time the helicopters hover in the sky, we think it is going to land here with relief material, but the choppers just fly past us. This time it finally landed—but what good are these cameras?” 

Binod Ghimire
National security beat, 
The Kathmandu Post

Priorities

On April 26, a day after the quake, I was assigned to go to Bhaktapur. At Thulo Byasi, all the houses next to the Byasi gate had completely collapsed and the locals were in frenzy. Teams from the Nepal Army and the Red Cross had been deployed to the areas and were trying to dig through the rubble to try and find survivors, but to no avail. All at once, a man appeared from one of the houses with a mud-caked Dalmatian clutched in his arms. Her name was Candy and her owners had perished under the weight of the debris. The dog was visibly scared having had spent an entire day under the rubble and she nervously peered around the crowd that had gathered. Her barely audible whimpers were drowned in the chaos, and I remember thinking, “If only she could speak.” Just as I began taking her picture for a future story, the earth began to shake violently again. 

It was a 6.7M aftershock and absolute pandemonium ensued. The houses, already weakened by the quake the day before, began crumbling all around. The rescue teams yelled at everyone to run to open ground and as we ran for our lives, it did not seem we would make it out alive. 

Once the aftershock subsided, we looked around to see if all was well. It was, as far as we could tell. Only Candy was gone; and no one seemed to know where. In the past year, I have made several visits back to the locality—half-wishing a mud-caked Dalmatian will once again appear out of nowhere. That day has yet to come, but I will never forget the lesson Candy taught me that day: The devastation was universal, and we, humans, were not the only ones that lost family on that fateful day.

Anup Ojha
City beat, 
The Kathmandu Post 

Panic chord

The initial minutes of confusion, was eventually replaced by fear. But the first thing that came to my mind was that I had to file a story. In the aftermath of the quake, Kantipur Television continued its transmission, but for safety reasons, we could no more operate from our building. Things had to move quickly, a live studio was set up for us on the street using our Out-Broadcast van. It was where we would broadcast from for the next few weeks.

Two big tents had been transformed into the studio and the newsroom. Unlike regular days, when anchors pay attention to their looks, what we were wearing became of least importance. Instant noodles became our staple diet. Our reporters and camera crew walked through the debris, lugging around heavy equipment, breaking down sometimes as they covered the devastation. Some of our team-mates had lost their homes. Some, relatives. 

The earth continued to shiver under our feet. Storms and rain pulled down our tents on some days. Stories often had to be handwritten, while producers gave instant cues, connecting the anchors to the reporters across the country. 

When the harsh weather battered us, we moved to the Kantipur Publications press premises— under a corrugated tin shed, which often heated up like a furnace. But at least it kept the wind and the rain out and we had access to toilets and daal-bhaat. When the aftershocks continued and it appeared like we were going to be working outdoors for a long time, we moved once again to the ground floor of the Kantipur TV Studio building. Another temporary newsroom was set up, and we started using our permanent studio once again.

A few steps away from us, the Kantipur Publications building, which had been significantly damaged by the earthquakes, was being dismantled. The workers were people from Kavre and Sinupalchowk who had lost their own homes and had arrived in Kathmandu looking for an income. The irony of the situation was far too tragic to comprehend.

Our lives appeared punctuated by several kinds of movements at the time, both in terms of what we were going through psychologically and the constant change of working space. We were in a state of flux. Every night, we went home to our respective temporary dwellings, to quickly consume meals cooked in a hurry, and to keep communal vigil.

It was weeks before I was able to grieve the loss of a cousin had been buried in the rubble when her house collapsed on April 25. Her body 

was only retrieved after a day. It was as though I was living in denial. Perhaps, I had tried to disassociate myself from the sufferings at a personal level, because it was the only way I could still report. What was most important at the time was to find a semblance in the inner discord as well as to find an order in the chaos around. To find hope amidst heartbreaks. I suppose, journalists sought that order by reporting the suffering around us.

Prateebha Tuladhar, 
Coordinator, English News Desk, Kantipur Television

Rising to the challenge

As soon as the first tremors subsided, I scrambled out of the house and my thoughts turned immediately to friends and family. Once ensuring that family and colleagues were safe, I walked to the Kantipur premises, only to be denied entry to the main office building. It was declared a danger zone. Reports emerged that the 7.8-magnitude shake—the worst natural disaster this country has suffered in nearly 80 years—had moved the land about four metres sideways. More so, in our case. 

It was decided to move the whole operation to the publications’ press area located around four kilometres from its headquarters. Under the circumstances, bringing out the Post in eight pages instead of the regular 16 was the best available option. I shot the message to my night desk colleagues, requesting their presence at the new venue. All of them obliged without hesitation. But getting the papers to people’s homes after an earthquake that had shaken all of us to the core was not that simple. 

The publications’ IT staffers did an extraordinary job, going the extra mile—quite literally. They braved climbing up and down five floors of the unstable building—the structure destined for a wreckers’ ball—to retrieve enough equipment to set up an office elsewhere.

The publication’s printing plant at Pepsicola was undamaged and, crucially, has just about enough space to squeeze in an army of around 300 Kantipur Media Group editorial and production staffers. It was a far cry from what we were used to before the quake struck.

As the plant sits on sandy alluvial soil on the banks of Manohara River, doomsayers were quick to spread the word: The ground beneath them would be churned if another major quake were to strike. A few fled the Capital when a 6.7-magnitude aftershock struck on April 26. 

The majority held their ground though. Forced to sleep in tents outside for at least four nights, most looked pretty worse for wear.

In the room where we worked, our seismometer was a wooden cabinet; some of my colleagues have developed a knack of determining the strength of each aftershock from its clatter—they tend to overestimate. Many of us had quake apps installed on the phone too but because they took longer to report, we would often play the ‘guess-the-magnitude’ game. But as the days turned into weeks, it really didn’t matter whether we were working in a luxurious office or round a snooker table. What mattered was that it literally brought us closer together, bonded us with a single purpose. Looking back, it was a sad, but special and significant time for many of us. We were personally and emotionally connected to the story to a greater extent than anything we have covered before. And when an edition of the paper hit homes around the shaken city as if it was just any other day, it made us feel that concerted effort all the more fulfilling.

Suman Malla
Assistant Editor, 
The Kathmandu Post 

Published: 23-04-2016 09:10

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