Nepal earthquake: Bringing aid to remote villages

A villager carries a sack of rice through the destroyed village of Baruwa

3am on Saturday 25 April 2015, the phone rang in my hotel room just outside Atlanta, USA, where I was staying for a meeting with CARE USA colleagues. A big earthquake had hit Nepal; the country where I am Country Director and my adopted home.

My first thought was for the safety of my staff, but also of my own family. My wife is Nepali and Nepal is my home; hearing the news it was as if my own country had been hit and I felt sick to my stomach.

Thankfully, and against all the odds, communications lines within Nepal were still working and I was able to call my wife who was shaken but fine. The next step was to work on a way to get back to Kathmandu.

Scenes of chaos

I finally arrived in Kathmandu airport on the Tuesday afternoon. I was greeted by scenes of chaos. The small and already overstretched airport was struggling to cope with the thousands of people flowing into the country in response to the earthquake, but I was just relieved that at least the airport was open and functioning, as in our earthquake contingency planning we had assumed it would be out business.

By 6am the next day I was in the office, to find many of our local and emergency response staff already hard at work. There was huge confusion about numbers of dead and wounded, as most of the hardest hit areas were inaccessible and communication systems had broken down. We were already anticipating huge needs for emergency shelter materials and food as well as non-food items like pots, pans, buckets and dignity kits, especially for women. Based on this we went straight to work trying to buy the necessary supplies – both internationally and from the limited stocks in country.

Man sits in rubble at Balgoan village

A man in the village of Balgoan sits in front of his destroyed home

Utter devastation

I managed to visit the field myself a few days later, on 3 and 4 May, to see one of the most devastated districts of Sindhupalchowk in eastern Nepal. We had to hike three hours uphill and across a landslide to reach the cut-off village of Baruwa.

I was blown away by what I saw – utter devastation. There was not one house left standing in the whole village and people were huddled under a few tarpaulins for shelter. There was no point even doing an assessment of the condition of the houses as there was nothing left to assess. People’s food stocks, clothes and personal items were all buried under the rubble of the houses. There were over 200 people dead and countless animals killed. While the dead people had been cremated, the animals had been buried in shallow pits and there was a smell of death hanging in the air.

Sad stories of loss

In the village we heard so many sad stories of loss. One young mother with a one-month-old baby had lost her four-year-old daughter in the quake. A 19-year-old girl, her father already dead for some years, has lost her mother and elder brother who just got married. She is now left to care, single-handedly, for her young sister-in-law.

A woman comforts an elderly woman in Baruma village

Kaki Lama Ni (above right) was trapped inside her house by rubble when the earthquake hit her village of Baruwa. She had to be dug out by family members - which took 30 minutes - and is now suffering from breathing problems and head injuries. She was knocked unconscious by the rubble: "When I woke up people were digging me out and I couldn't feel anything," she says.

On top of all this the quake has also created new challenges for the survivors. I spoke to one pregnant young girl who was due to deliver in a week’s time. The health post in the village has collapsed and all the medical equipment and supplies have either been damaged or buried under mounds of rubble and she had no idea what she would do.

Helicopters fly in relief supplies

Two days later CARE managed to fly in two helicopter loads of food to the village. A four-hour drive and three-hour hike took just 15 minutes in a helicopter from Kathmandu. Luckily they also managed to open the road and re-connect the village that same day, making it much easier to get future supplies to the village and surrounding area.

Villagers unload supplies from a relief helicopter

Villagers in the village of Balgoan in Sindhupalchowk unload bags of rice and lentils from the CARE helicopter. This is the first time any aid has reached the cut-off village and villagers had been left with only 1-2 days' food supply before CARE's arrival.

The situation I saw in Baruwa is, sadly, typical of many of these remote areas that have been decimated by the earthquake and cut off from the rest of the country. We are still trying to find out the scale of the impact in these areas but it looks to be drastic with huge immediate needs in shelter, food and other life-saving interventions.

Race against the clock

CARE teams are working around the clock to get assessments done and coordinate the assistance and supplies into the country in order to reach communities like Baruwa before it is too late. It is now a race against the clock to provide assistance – especially in the form of shelter – before the monsoon rains begin in June. There will be a lot of long hard days for all in the coming months to try and meet all these needs.

Lex Kassenberg is CARE Nepal Country Director.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.