Miracle Boy, six years after Nepal quakeBaby survived being buried under the rubble for 22 hours, but his family still struggles to cope
In a sparse rented room with pink walls, six-year-old Sonish Awal is preparing for his online Nepali class (pictured above) on a smartphone, leaning on a table propped up with a paint bucket.
His sister Sonia is coaching the first grader, the baby made famous as Nepal’s ‘Miracle Boy’ for having survived 22 hours under the rubble of the family’s home in Bhaktapur that was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.
“He is playful and inquisitive, he keeps asking me when we will rebuild our house,” says Rashmila about her son, whom she describes as a happy child who likes to play with other neighbourhood children and watch tv.
The family’s single room has a sewing machine in which Rashmila, sews clothes for additional income. She has no answer for her son’s persistent questions about rebuilding their house.
Her husband Shyam is a truck driver, but the pandemic and lockdowns have reduced his income.
When the earthquake struck at 11:56AM on 25 April 2015, Rashmila was out shopping, she rushed back as the ground shook. At their home, Sonia picked up her four-month-old brother, and tried to rush out of the room. A cupboard fell on top of them, and the house came down on top of them.
Sonia was unconscious when she was rescued a few hours later, and was rushed to hospital. But Sonish could not be found. Nepal Army rescuers had given up, but were called back in the morning when Rashmila heard a faint wail from under the rubble.
They found Sonish covered in dust, with just a scratch in his leg. The photograph of soldier Dipak Rai and other rescuers holding the baby got widespread play in the national and international media. In Nepal, the rescue brought a ray of hope to a nation in shock after the disaster that left nearly 9,000 dead and 22,000 injured.
Shyam Awal was driving his pickup at Jadibuti, when he felt like he was losing control of the vehicle. He turned around and drove back to Bhaktapur, and seeing all the destroyed buildings, he feared the worst.
There was a heap of rubble where his home used to be, and his son buried somewhere inside. He rushed to the hospital to find his daughter Sonia was still unconscious. His wife Rashmila was inconsolable.
"The whole neighbourhood came together for the rescue but each time, it was another corpse that we pulled out, we had given up hope of Sonish surviving so long after the earthquake,” recalls 39-year-old Shyam.
When they heard the faint cry from the ruin of their four-storey home late into the night, Shyam at first thought it was a dog. But as it became clear that it Sonish whimpering.
“We could hear the baby but pulling him out was another story altogether, I was panicking the whole time, knowing he was down there but we couldn’t do much,” recalls Rashmila. “When they finally pulled him out, he was covered in dust. Today, he just has a scar on his left thigh to remind him of the miraculous survival.”
After his online exam this week, Rashmila walked Sonish to the ruin of their house that collapsed six years ago. The debris has been cleared, but the space is empty.
After his ancestral home was divided between the brothers, Shyam Awal ended up without a land title, his portion of the property is likely to be acquired by the municipality for a road-widening project. The family is planning to build a one-storey house for now, and save on rent.
Amul Thapa, who took the now-iconic image of Nepal Army rescuer Dipak Rai lifting Sonish from the rubble, visits the Awals regularly, but is frustrated by the state’s apathy towards the survivors.
“The rescue bought the family international fame, even the Prime Minister visited them but they remain where they are, their house is the only one left to be rebuilt in that lane,” says Thapa.
Nepal Army that played a crucial role in the rescue of Sonish has been paying for the education of both the Awal children through a scholarship they set up for until they graduate from high school. After finishing his primary school, Sonish will attend the Army’s high school in Sallaghari.
Sonish, who celebrated his sixth birthday in October, does not remember that fateful day, but he has grown up looking at the images of himself. Pointing at a cut-out of his picture from a newspaper from six years ago, he says he wants to become a solider when he grows up.
At the site of the rescue, Rashmila asks her son where he was trapped. Sonish has been told the story so often that he points to the spot above a half-buried door, and replies cheerfully: “Right here, I was underneath here.”