KATHMANDU, Nepal – The children of Nepal went back to school this week. Those who still had their books put them in their schoolbags – if they still had those. Those with uniforms stood patiently as their mothers adjusted and straightened them, making sure they looked neat. Those with shoes slipped them on. Those who could find their glasses dusted them off. And off they went.
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Not all their teachers would be there. Many had returned to their home villages and towns to try and help relatives salvage what they could, or to care for the injured. Not all the classrooms were standing, either – some 30,000 were totally destroyed, and tens of thousands more suffered damage. In the hard-hit Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk and Nuwakot districts, more than 90 percent of the schools were gone.
But Nepal’s government had decided the time had come for things to get back to normal, or something resembling it. And so it is in Nepal, barely more than a month since a 7.8-magnitude quake hit the country, killing more than 8,600 and leaving behind untold destruction: it’s all about the new normal.
The passage of time and the dictates of fickle news cycles means that world attention has also declined since April 25. Victims – especially if they were tourists – buried in rubble and landslides, or being saved by international search and rescue teams, is the stuff of headline news. The painstaking business of procuring metal sheets and tarps for the homeless, rebuilding toilets in the countryside and handing out rice – less so.
By the time a second earthquake hit Nepal on May 12, most of the journalists who had come to cover the aftermath of the first quake were already gone. Now, most of the international medical, rescue and aid missions that rushed in have also pared down or left altogether.
Syria and the Islamic State dominate the news, along with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s broken leg and the scandals at FIFA. As Nepal staggers slowly to its feet, the country’s day-to-day challenges have mostly been reduced to photo captions in the papers and news tickers scrolling along the bottom of TV screens.
But Nepal’s earthquake story is, of course, far from over. The hard parts of recovery are, in many ways, just beginning.
Planning for the next time
Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal – with a population of some 30 million and a per-capita income of about $750 – was grappling with serious infrastructure challenges and political instability even before this natural disaster hit.
According to World Bank statistics, over one-third of rural villages are more than four hours away from an all-weather road. Less than half of children who finish primary school advance to secondary education. And about 47 percent of children under 5 are stunted because of malnutrition.
And then they were hit with this devastating quake. Today, at least two million Nepalis remain homeless, and many have lost all their possessions – storages of grain, animals, pots and pans, clothes, documents. Some 16,000 injured are still being treated in hospitals and clinics. And 240 Nepalis and 89 foreigners are still missing.
Aftershocks continue, terrifying the jittery citizens time and again. Various roads and districts are still partially blocked off by landslides, and the upcoming monsoon rains will certainly make matters even more difficult.
Posters with red dots on them – signifying a building has been deemed unsafe to enter – hang on the fronts of broken structures everywhere. The newspapers run daily advice columns with titles such as, “Planning evacuation in case of more disasters,” “Dealing with workplace grief” and “How to help children cope.”
Here in the capital, bulldozers are tearing down precariously tilting buildings. Engineers are going house-to-house to inspect cracks. And masses of people, either scared to go inside their homes or unable to, have set up makeshift camps on any patch of flat ground possible: Next to their broken homes; in the fields; around fallen temples; on the grassy areas in the center of the city’s chaotic traffic circles. In a land famed for its camping and trekking, half of Kathmandu seems to be living out of tents today, but not by choice.
The tourist trekkers, meanwhile, are gone. Hotels are empty. Incoming flights are emptier still. Parts of Mount Everest’s base camp were wiped out in avalanches triggered by the earthquake. The popular Langtang trekking route was destroyed. Tourists who had been planning to visit Nepal in coming months have changed their itineraries and are headed off to different adventures.
Quieter and sadder, and with the monsoon season looming, this stunned country feels both paralyzed and in motion all at once: Some families sit around the chowks (open spaces) near their destroyed homes, unsure what to do. They worry that if they themselves begin rebuilding, they may never be able to prove to the government or aid organizations how much they need outside help and will not receive it.
But a larger majority have started repairing and regrouping without waiting for help, dismantling their broken homes – if they are still standing – and rebuilding with the salvageable debris. Many here are on the move. Those from heavily damaged districts are heading toward the capital or to other, less damaged, villages. Those in the capital have set out toward their home villages, to try and make sense of what is going on there and to help their families.
Complaints about delays in aid distribution abound, as do complaints about irregularities, unfairness and corruption. In classic fashion, the smaller NGOs and charities complain about the government siphoning off funds and the United Nations wasting money on expensive consultants and bloated bureaucracies. UN and government officials, in turn, complain about the smaller organizations working haphazardly and in an uncoordinated manner. Rare is the disaster zone without these sorts of accusations and recriminations.
Getting Nepal back on its feet
But there are also inspiring aid stories rising from the rubble. Possibly the most notable aspect of the relief effort here is how many regular Nepalis, whether as individuals, organized into ad-hoc volunteer groups or working with more established local NGOs, have taken it upon themselves to help their country get back on its feet.
Bodies such as The Yellow House, Nepal Villagers’ Earthquake Fund, TEWA – Nepal Women’s Fund, and the Child NGO Federation – Nepal, among many others, have quickly raised funds and mobilized volunteers to distribute aid to the most remote districts. Groups organized by Nepal Rises, meanwhile, are monitoring social media to identify gaps in the response efforts and find solutions. Volunteer Nepali engineers and doctors – both those living in Nepal and others who flew in to help – are traveling up and down the country, assessing needs and getting down to work.
“The truth is, no one is expecting anyone else to save the day for them,” says activist and TEWA founder Rita Thapa. “It’s clear to us that we need to rely on ourselves. Nepalis are an extremely resourceful and resilient people, and we will rise from this.”
Indeed, as the schools reopen, no mention of “the new normal” comes without talk of resiliency. “Ke Garne?” Nepalis ask each other and tilt their heads back and forth. The phrase literally means “What to do?” and reflects the such-is-life approach here.
There are fresh mangos in the markets. Many mom and pop restaurants have reopened and are serving up piping hot dumplings – momos – filled with buffalo meat and slathered in hot sauce. The ubiquitous mobile phone shops are doing a brisk business again, selling pay-as-you-go packages. Dance halls are restarting classes. And the knickknack, book- and trekking stores in the capital’s Thamel tourist district have proudly put their pashminas, Buddha statues and rafting brochures back on the broken shelves – even though no one is around to browse.
Climb the steep stairs to the ancient temples of Swayambhu – sidestepping fallen chunks of building, tangled electrical wires and families crowded together under tarps – and you’ll find volunteer teams clearing the debris, standing in long silent lines and passing bricks and pieces of broken wood from hand to hand. “Ke Garne,” they shrug.
Worshippers have returned, too, bringing offerings for the gods. The monk’s choir is back chanting as the sun goes up. And so is the dawn yoga session, filled, every day, with survivors throwing their hands out wide and forcing out laughter – those big, yogic belly laughs – all together as one.