« June 2015   |   Main   |  August 2015 »

July 05, 2015

Living Through the Aftermath

By Larissa Stauffer, team leader of REACH Team Himalayas 2014-15

When I think of South Asia after the earthquake, there are three things I remember: the rubble, the stoic faces of the women as they press on with daily life, and the children.

The rubble stands in piles of dust; what once was a home is now worse than nothing. No longer a shelter, but a danger; no longer standing tall but laid low, devastated. Even the homes left standing are not safe.

The faces of the women are etched in my memory, stoic and masked. They are forced to continue on with life against the worst set of odds: houses unlivable, husbands working abroad, babies in their arms but no knowledge of what they will feed them as the weeks unfold. Yet they smile at one another as they continue with life, as if not all is hopeless. I have never seen such perseverance and determination; survival as if by sheer willpower. I admire them greatly.

But it’s the children I remember most. Children using wood leftover from the temporary shelters to build a cart, riding it down the hill next to all their collapsed homes. Children in our village running around in the church yard, in the river, in the street outside the house, undaunted by the chaos around them—this is their new normal. Children running in the dust alongside our jeep as we head to distribute supplies in a mountain village,“Khaana din na,” they call, through our open windows. Give us food, would you? Please, some food. Children laughing though the world has fallen around them.

I met a woman in a village that was almost completely leveled. She was smiling and friendly, wearing a bright pink T-shirt and the wrap-skirt most women wear, her hair pulled back in a knot. She talked to me as the rest of our group distributed toothbrushes to the heads of families. I couldn’t understand all of her story, but I knew enough to know that she was talking about her daughters, who were married and had moved away, and about her son, and about the devastation. She pointed to a spot just up the hill.

“My house,” she said. “You see it? Just over there.” The woman next to her nodded and pointed as well. “Yes, just over there. Just near here.” I knew they were talking about something sad. I couldn’t understand it all, but I could listen and I could care as they told me again of the day their lives fell apart.

I learned later that this woman’s son, her only son, was killed in that house. He was inside when the earthquake started, and she told him to come out, but he would not. She doesn’t know why. I didn’t understand at the time that this is what she was saying to me; “Just near here. There, in that very house”; the house that is now only marked by a pile of rubble on the ground.

They say that 70 percent of the houses in the Gorkha district, one of the districts bordering the epicenter of the first earthquake, are cracked. We were staying in the Gorkha district when the first quake took place. It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. People running out of their houses, the ground beneath us visibly shaking, and concrete houses wobbling back and forth. Still, we didn’t know the weight of what had happened. I thought, “Oh, so that’s an earthquake. I wonder what a really big earthquake would feel like?” We learned the gravity of the situation when we got back to the church and our friend said to us, “I’ve just heard that one man died up in the Gorkha Bazaar.” That was near us—just 13 kilometers by road. And the gravity just kept building, hour by hour and day by day as the death tolls mounted. One hundred killed, they said that first afternoon. Then 200, and 800 by nightfall. It took days for an accurate estimate to be given: nearly 10,000.

“It’s hard to imagine this kind of devastation going on around you, even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s hard to comprehend that the same shaking you felt beneath your feet could claim so many lives.”It’s hard to imagine this kind of devastation going on around you, even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s hard to comprehend that the same shaking you felt beneath your feet could claim so many lives. A young woman across the river from our village lost her husband, who was visiting friends in Kathmandu when the earthquake came. He stayed inside the house just seconds too long—fetching a bag or putting on shoes, they say. She fainted when they brought his body back.

This was the nearest death came to us for a while though, and it felt strange to live in relative safety while everything around us was in chaos. Many houses were cracked, but few had fallen on our side of the river. The women of the village served food at the church, morning and evening, to the people camped out there under tarps strung from clotheslines and roofs. We stayed there for several days with the students from the Discipleship Training School we had been helping with. The church building was cracked; no one could stay inside for long. We only darted in to plug in cell phones when the generator was running.

But around us, devastation was a reality. We saw it more as the danger lessened and we were able to venture out to bring supplies to the villages nearby. The mountains were dotted with the fluorescent orange and blue of tarp tents. Just up the mountain from us, 27 villagers, believers and non-believers alike, took shelter under a tarp about the size of a single-car garage. They had to sit because there wasn’t enough room to lie down. And it rained—gusty storms that threatened to blow the tarps away and made staying dry nearly impossible.

Near that same village, a widowed woman and her daughter were without food except what their neighbors gave them: their rice was trapped on the second story of their house that threatened to topple at any second. The two of them barely made it out of the house alive. Over and over, we saw these things: family after family caught in the impossible aftermath of the earthquake that shook their lives apart.

And then there were the aftershocks. It is enough to live through an earthquake that destroys your home and claims the lives of your friends and family; it is too much to have to experience that earthquake over and over again. When a tremor starts, people cry, “Pheri aayo,” It’s coming again. The very words strike terror in the heart. It’s coming again, the force that destroyed homes and took lives. At any moment it could come again, large and strong like the first time—and it did come again. One newspaper called the May 12 tremor– nearly the same magnitude as the original earthquake–a cruel déjà vu.

Even for me, having lost no family or friends and now home, thousands of miles away from the earthquakes, every shake and tremble, whether a passing car or a slamming door makes it feel like the world is still falling.

There were 291 aftershocks in the first three days. Nearly nine weeks later, they haven’t stopped. As of June 1, schools have resumed classes and life is returning to normal, but there is no saying when things will be truly safe. Could another large tremor come again? It is unlikely, but the May 12 tremor did nothing to calm people’s fears. Still, they must rebuild and go on with life. The monsoon season has begun, bringing heavy rains and winds that tents cannot protect from. They will need to buy tin roofs. They will have to build long-term shelters. They will have to start living once more inside stone and concrete houses that, whether cracked or intact, could fall if the earthquake came again. Pheri aayo.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, landslides make returning to normal life dangerous, if not impossible. Whole villages have had to move into the jungle for safety as the mountain continues to rain down rocks on their homes and make it impossible to retrieve food from the rubble.

We visited a village in Sindupalchowk where the landslides also posed another problem. At the church, now a temporary shelter for many families who have been displaced by the earthquake, the water supply is nearly cut off. Before the earthquake, it was piped down the mountain from a spring, but landslides have caused the water to stop flowing except for a small trickle. It would be too dangerous for anyone to go up the mountain and connect the pipes to the spring again—the ground is literally falling off the side of the mountain. So for now, they conserve water and hope that what they have will be enough.