Nepal cremates its dead, clears rubble

2015-05-04 16:59

Kathmandu - April 25 was a normal day for Urmila Rai. She had spent the morning at her Phutung home on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, going about her business like any other Saturday.

But shortly after midday, everything changed.

After the clock tolled at noon, her walls started shaking violently. Her roof began to crumble. Within seconds, the house caved in. While she was able to escape, her only child - born just three months earlier - was trapped inside.

The little boy would not survive.

Shattered, Rai now lies in her bed at the Janamaitri Hospital virtually comatose on a rusty gurney. Her two sisters sit at her bedside, silent too.

They were among thousands who were trapped and crushed in collapsed buildings. According to government figures, already 7 000 people have been killed and many thousands injured. But as more rural villages are accessed for the first times by emergency teams, it is feared that the toll could drastically rise.

As the 7.8-magnitude quake rocked Nepal, families, prisoners and even animals faced death; crushed by falling debris.

But 613 souls held captive within the Nakhu Jail had nowhere to flee, confined to cramped cells within dank, crumbling concrete walls. The prison houses men and women who have taken their guilty verdict on appeal, some considered the worst of Nepal's citizens. 

A prison guard, who would not be named, confirmed that part of the penitentiary had collapsed when the tremors shook the structure, reducing older buildings to rubble.

Nakhu is one of these buildings, and the walls which remain are heavily guarded by the Bhanshipati district’s Armed Police Force (APF).

A stony-faced sentry stands in a turret with an automatic machine gun trained on the gate, a throwback from a country that has emerged from a bloody civil war.

The guard said that the quake had stopped their ability to feed the prisoners, but that international aid organisations had stepped in to bridge the gap, implementing a desperately needed feeding scheme for the men and women prisoners.

Among them is a German national, jailed for holding illicit drugs. 

While none of the prisoners had an earthquake-induced early release, rumours of the escape of another caged inmate -  a tiger at the Kathmandu Zoo named Narayan after Hindu Goddess Durga, a paragon of bravery, strength and resilience - kept terrified residents in the area holed up in their houses, despite those homes being on the verge of collapse.

Narayan the tiger has a chilling reputation that inspires fear, having claimed four lives in the Chitwan National Reserve before he was captured and started serving his lengthy sentence in the zoo.

But they were just that: rumours. Narayan’s enclosure, while stark and sparse, remains intact.

The man-eater continues to pace his cage, baring his teeth with a low growl that reverberates through the cold steel bars.

The Zoo’s administrative officer, Hari Bikram Singh, said thankfully none of his animal charges had been hurt, but that the animals had seemed to sense impending danger moments before the quake. The only reported earthquake damage is the roof of the zoo’s storeroom, with the menagerie escaping unscathed.  

Their struggle for life, and the resilience shown by the Nepali people, unfolded at the Thapathali Durbar Square in Kathmandu which was reduced to rubble on Saturday last week. 

Camouflaged APF members, shrouded in the crimson dust from aged bricks, formed chains to move debris from the heap that was once a sacred temple. 

Virgin white spires stand on each corner, a reminder of the structure’s former prominence.

The Dharara Tower, a feature that dominated the skyline of hazy Kathmandu, is also no more. Its catastrophic collapse claimed as many as 180 lives. 

The 62-metre white monolith was built in 1832, and revered in local lore. 

The tower, rumoured to have been constructed in honour of Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari, survived two earthquakes hundreds of years apart before it was eventually felled. 

The tower had a central role in Nepal life. When incidents of national importance occurred, bugles were blown from the top floor. This was the signal for soldiers to assemble. This trumpeting tradition continued until the day it collapsed.

Now only a ragged outcrop of a lower level remains with rescue technicians from around the globe scrambling over heaps of concrete at the site of what was once the tallest building in the city.

At similar collapse sites dotted across the city, volunteers grasp at piles of shattered bricks and mortar while adjacent storefronts stand open, set ahead of gaping fissures in quake-ravaged roads that flank them. 

Life goes on for the people of Nepal, who are now taking stock days after the tremors have ceased. 

Their stoic suffering is embodied in the reverent silence as the dead are cremated on the riverbank in central Kathmandu. 

Those who survived the quake look on as orange flames edge to the top of wooden pyres and merge with the vivid orange that the dead are draped in. 

Narayan Dhital, a trekking planner for Everest missions, captures this spirit of fortitude.

His village near Gurka was completely destroyed by the quake, leaving 57 families, along with his, own destitute. 

He had been near the Everest base camp when the ground shook beneath him, and witnessed his friend and fellow guide’s decapitation by a falling shard of ice. 

He rushed to Kathmandu to try and find a tent for his family when he crashed his motorcycle. 

“What else can we do but move on and start again,” he says softly. 

“People have no money to build, they just have enough to eat and we will overcome this,” Dhital said.

Read more on:    nepal  |  nepal earthquake

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