Rebirth and rebuilding in the ruinsThree months after the earthquake, Jajarkot looks to the future
Three months after the earthquake in western Nepal, with late winter snow dusting surrounding peaks, survivors are grappling with the harsh reality of rebuilding their lives.
Despite the still visible devastation all around, there is a strong community spirit that has helped the people of what were already Nepal’s most underserved districts get on with their lives.
“I heard my mother screaming for help outside, and after some time, the people rescued me,” recalls 7-year-old Manju, who was trapped under the rubble of her mud home in Rawat Gaun.
Although grateful that she survived, Manju is still traumatised and is haunted by all the relatives and friends who did not make it on the night of 3 November — including four children and their parents in a neighbouring house.
Rawat Gaun still resembles a battlefield, the houses are flattened as if they were bombed. Damaged buildings stand amidst heaps of rubble that have not yet been cleared. Families spent winter in flimsy tents, tarp and tin sheets supported by tree trunks and rocks.
The destruction here is worse than in the villages of Barekot Rural Municipality, the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake.
Even before the quake, there were mostly the elderly, women, and children here. The young men and adults had migrated to the cities or to India. Most of the dead and wounded were women, and half of the 153 killed were children buried under collapsed houses.
“Without the children who survived, we would have felt even more bereaved,” says Bali BK, 60, whose son and daughter-in-law are working in the city. “Hearing their laughter and seeing them play gives us joy and hope."
Nearby, Manju is playing in the dirt with her friends, Sashila and Sumnima, aged 7 and 9, as Bali looks on from the tent in which she has been living alone since the earthquake. The children sing a ditty they composed about the earthquake. This creases up Bali’s face as she smiles.
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“One positive outcome from this earthquake is that many people now know the names of our villages, and outsiders have come to help us with warm clothes, food, and medicine,” says Mani Damai, another elderly resident.
That is not to say life is easy, hardships are compounded by the current cold wave, and the tents offer little protection from the rain and wind.
Nights in the tents are especially difficult for the many pregnant women, and lactating mothers with newborn babies.
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“The health of expecting mothers is a big concern,” says Surya Bhatta of One Heart Worldwide. “They urgently require suitable living conditions, healthcare and nourishment for their well-being.”
The German Embassy has helped One Heart distribute tents, equipment, winterisation kits, blankets, and hygiene equipment for pregnant and lactating mothers, and babies.
The earthquake dealt a severe blow to the already fragile and inadequate health system in Jajarkot with 40 health posts damaged, including birthing centers. Access to quality medical care was a concern even before the earthquake, now it is even more critical.
“Talking to local residents, municipalities and officials, we have gained valuable insight into the challenges ahead,” says Sabrina Schmidt Koschella of the German Embassy in Kathmandu. “The scale of destruction underscores the urgent need for continued support from the international community for recovery and rebuilding.”
Ramidanda Health Post chief Bishnu Raj Jyoti and his team managed to save many lives on 3 November and the next day. Nurses and the health team treated many injured people and those with other illnesses.
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“There were a lot of injured and sick among the 400 families in this ward, and we managed to rush those with serious injuries to hospital in Surkhet by helicopter in the days that followed the disaster,” Jyoti recalls.
The local government and security units as well as the Jajarkot District Administration Office played a pivotal role in disaster management. Despite losing his office, CDO Suresh Sunar continues to direct relief efforts from his prefab box to the survivors.
“We had learnt a lot about disaster management from the 2015 earthquake, and knew that we had to help the thousands of homeless survivors,” Sunar says.
Although the government’s one-window system for relief through the DAO got bad press initially for creating bottlenecks, it has now ensured better coordination between donors, agencies, the private sector and volunteers.
The DAO's prefab 'office' is often crowded with people from all over the district applying for lost citizenship papers, National Identity Cards, travel permits, and other vital documentation.
Despite the adversity, there are stories of hope. Maya was six months pregnant during the earthquake, and recalls the panic as she escaped through narrow stairs from the second floor of her house. Now in her ninth month, she hopes for a safe delivery at the Ramidanda health facility in Barekot.
“I feel lucky that we are safe, but it has been a difficult three months in the cold,” Maya says.
The birthing centre where Maya will be delivering lacks equipment, the maternity room does not even have a proper delivery bed but the nurses are doing their best to provide safe motherhood.
“The disaster is also an opportunity for visitors to see the reality of life here, and how hard it was even before the earthquake,” says Hem Bahadur Giri, Ward-1 Chair of Barekot. “But because of the earthquake, at least we have help to improve our health system.”
Manisha is a young mother with three children and says she has never seen so many strangers in her village before. She is happy they are all there to help with warm clothes.
“Life here was always difficult, we are far from the city and hardly anyone ever came here, but now there are all these people who have come to help,” she says. “We have blankets and drinking water tanks, which we never had before.”