We knew it was coming. But now that it is here, the world, for those of us who know and love Nepal, has shifted. Having escaped being crushed by a water tank, a friend in Kathmandu says, “My heart keeps shaking.” A text message comes in from another friend from rural Nepal, far from the epicenter but still impacted: “My house is not able to live.”
Nearly noon on Saturday, local time, a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Himalayan country, sandwiched between India and China. As of this writing, the official death toll is nearing 4,000, but I speak with confident dread that the actual casualties from this catastrophic event are orders of magnitude greater. These deaths are occurring not only in Kathmandu, the capital city, but also across Nepal’s rural hill and mountain communities.
In the 24 hours after the grand mal moment, the country has experienced more than 80 aftershocks, including a 6.7 event up on the border between Nepal and Tibet, at Kodari. Avalanches in the Everest region have resulted in the deaths of mountain climbers, foreign and local. Landslides further threaten homes and communities throughout the country, particularly northeast and northwest of the Kathmandu Valley. Entire villages have turned to rubble overnight. World Heritage sites have toppled. The human loss is impossible to calculate. The Nepali people and the nation as a whole are experiencing this tragedy in the wake of a brutal, decade-long civil war followed by nearly a decade of fragile peace and political transition.
Images from the epicenter in Lamjung District, and in swaths on either side, reveal not only the beautifully crenelated folds of earth and river, village and sky that typify rural Nepal but also a picture of devastation. It is a landscape torn apart, soil as blood, rock as bone. As I look at aerial pictures of nearby Langtang and read that this historic village — one of the first I visited in Nepal 23 years ago — has been leveled, I am reminded of an image of Mount St. Helens after it erupted. But in that case, it was trees like pickup sticks strewn across the ground. In Nepal, it is the tangle of roofs and lives.
It was Saturday midday. This is significant. Saturday is Nepal’s national day of rest, a time when children were not in class, when few were sleeping, when farmers worked fields. And yet it was also a time when couples strolled hand in hand beside Dharahara Tower, as it came tumbling down. It was a time when people gathered in the shade of temples, taking selfies and eating snacks, before the red brick bottom fell out beneath them.
Images from a photographer friend who has made Kathmandu his home for more than three decades reveal the wreckage of Kathmandu’s iconic Durbar Square. In one photograph, the back of a bronze garuda statue peers out over the wreckage of what was once the temple, now reduced to an instant midden of crumbled masonry and splintered beams. The statue still bears marks of worship and beauty: a delicate string of marigolds around its neck. It is not lost on me that this mythical creature is a symbol of violent force, of speed and prowess, but also of deep intelligence and the capacity to organize the collective — flying with godspeed. Today, I imagine virtual GIS garuda working to map the disaster. If you have mapping skill, contribute.
Although Nepal is half a world away, it is a place close to the hearts and minds of many. News continues to unfold. The work of immediate relief — including for the provision of water, food, and shelter — is essential. So, too, are efforts toward rebuilding and resilience over the long term, in Kathmandu and across the country. In coming weeks, access to water, food, and housing will be crucial. True to the logic of structural violence, women, children, and those at the bottom of Nepal’s socioeconomic and caste hierarchies will be severely impacted. As the monsoon begins in early summer, this will bring with it further challenges to everything from access to clean water (the specter of cholera and other waterborne illnesses loom) to more landslides that will complicate rebuilding efforts. Assisting Nepal’s rural poor must be a top priority. And donors will need to be carefully attuned, coordinated, and forthright in the funneling of aid.
The fact that almost 3 million of Nepal’s able-bodied men and women are abroad working as wage laborers in the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia will contribute to the complexity of rebuilding, particularly in rural areas. So, too, will trauma — faraway, so close. Imagine being suspended on scaffolding in a Doha high-rise, staring down at the world below, not knowing if your family is alive. In a state of still moving earth and fear, rumors also fly. My Facebook feed reveals that some believe NASA has predicted a 9.0 aftershock. Quick rebuttals follow — Don’t spread rumors. The truth is bad enough! — but still the terror remains palpable. Even so, Nepal’s local-to-global networks of support, from SMS to remittances, are crucial on the path to recovery.
Worlds torn apart are beyond interpretation, yet we rely on words and images to ground the truth of our grief. In my mind’s eye, I see the family with whom I have lived over two decades. They are camped in their garden, near the historic and now severely damaged Boudhanath stupa, a World Heritage Site and the heart-center for Tibetans in Nepal. Bare life as a patchwork of tents, thermoses of tea, instant noodles, and the matriarch grandmother wrapped in quilts thick with dust, hands moving prayer beads, hands also in action.
As for directing resources, consider the following three tiers of action, not mutually exclusive:
• Reconstruction aid, especially to rural areas, through smaller nongovernmental organizations that have been working in affected areas: Educate the Children, Nepal Seeds, One Heart World-Wide are ones I know personally and trust.
• Personal connections: Determine ways to send money through those you know, and ask them how best to get funding to them (Western Union, bank transfer). If you know one person or one community directly impacted and have a way of channeling resources, do so. You might be surprised to learn how close to home this tragedy has hit, and how direct the need is.