Dhan Bahadur Sunar was outside his house making iron window frames in the workshop he’d set up recently when he heard his 10-month-old daughter wailing in her cot. He went inside and tried to calm her, but she wouldn’t stop. He was alone; his wife and son had gone off into the hills to collect the creamy white mud with which they would repaint their house. He carried the baby in his arms and stepped outside. It was almost noon. There was no sign of them.
That’s when the earth began to convulse, and for Dhan Bahadur Sunar, time stopped ticking. As the din of the houses crumbling around him rose, Dhan Bahadur had only one thought on his mind: Run! Run! Get out of here! He cradled the baby in his arms and ran uphill, up the narrow alleys of Laprak, dodging falling houses, until he came to the fields of the local school. There, as he waited for his wife and son, he heard that a landslide had buried six.
Those who had gathered could hear the screams of the people buried in buildings. After a second quake hit minutes later, more villagers flocked to the fields, too terrified to go back into their houses. By this time Dhan Bahadur’s wife and son had found him. Together the Sunar family fled further up the hill until they came to an open slope an hour’s walk from Laprak. More tremors followed. It was drizzling. The phones had stopped working. They spent the night there, thirsty, hungry, cold, and awake. The next morning Dhan Bahadur watched as his neighbors clambered up to the pasture. It continued to rain. Some of the villagers had brought tarps with them. Dhan Bahadur and his family spent the next three nights under those tarps with seven other families. They survived on dry noodles and biscuits from a shop that escaped the earthquake, until a helicopter dropped additional rations. Everyone was terrified to return to the crumbled buildings, lest there was another tremor. On the fourth day, Dhan Bahadur took his khukri with him and went into the woods to cut branches to build a shed.
The shudder that began on April 25 hasn’t stopped.
I met Dhan Bahadur Sunar, a 37-year-old father of two, on May 12 at a temporary health clinic at Gupsi Dada, a settlement 2,700 meters above sea level. The settlement had been created overnight by those fleeing the earthquake in Laprak, which lies at the foot of a mountain. Nearby, the village secretary took details of the 18 villagers who perished in the earthquake so that the government could provide “compensation” to the families of the dead.
Sunar suffers from high blood pressure, and the doctor told him to reduce his salt intake. His visit over, Sunar got up to leave. I was intrigued by the sight of him—a dark, mustachioed man with wide, murky eyes, in a mostly Gurung village. The Gurung language is alive and well in Laprak, and I wandered off with Sunar, realizing I’d be useless as a translator to the medical team.
In the middle of the field between the medical tent set up by Dr. Sonam Lama and Kat Bogacz, a nurse from Colorado, and the large settlement of the displaced, lay an empty space crisscrossed with squares where people had marked spots to build huts. A small family—a husband, wife, and child—was digging a hole in one of the spots. As I approached them, it started to rain, but they didn’t stop digging. Soon, a woman came over and began to speak to them, pointing to the ground. The man looked grim.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Somebody else has already taken this spot,” he said. “We need to find a new spot.”
The wife picked up the child.
“I’ll help you dig,” I said, and picked up the shovel. Five minutes later, we’d found another spot, roughly four meters by four, facing the peaks of the Boudha mountains in the west. But it started pouring, so the man took me to a tent he’d been sharing with four other families.
There, under a tarpaulin on the eastern edge of the settlement, was Hitmaya Gurung, a tenth-grader, who was sitting idly with her friend. I asked the girls if they would show me the way to Laprak, and they agreed. When it had stopped raining, the three of us descended about a kilometer and soon came to another tent settlement of about 120 families by my estimate. We kept descending. Further down was another smaller settlement, and another, right above the deserted village—deserted, except for the stubborn and the elderly, who refused to leave the place they’d called home all their lives. Throughout the descent, we came across men, women, and children carrying up dokos with black wooden planks, blankets, and household items salvaged from the ruins. Some of them were Hitmaya’s friends. One, whom she called “Miss,” was her teacher.
Hitmaya was reserved, and did not speak more than a few words at a time. One of her classmates, Push Gurung, had died in the village, and another, Santosh, was buried in the landslide. Behind the school, I met Phur Bahadur Gurung and his family, rummaging through the rubble of their two houses, now heaps of stone and wood, digging with bare hands for anything useful they could find. An old lady, past 80, in one of the nearby lanes insisted that I came inside her house. She wanted to show me that it was safe. A 77-year-old man, Terta Gurung, said he didn’t want to leave the village. He had three sons. They’d come, he said, and gone, leaving him there. A group of three women who’d lost everything had decided to band together.
Laprak was pretty, even in ruins. It was built on a slope above a river. A tall waterfall dropped dramatically from the mountain on the other side of the river. There were narrow water canals here and there. Flowers had sprung up on the walls that lined the narrow paths.
It was getting dark by the time we climbed the steep trail back to the settlement at Gupsi Dada, where the tents were as close to each other as the houses below. Blue smoke rose from the camp, and the air smelled of burnt meat. Someone was roasting a sheep.
“The village of Larpak is unique,” said Santosh Gurung, a former village chief and a Nepali Congress member, who now lives in Kathmandu like many others originally from Laprak. Unlike in Barpak, the village that had the misfortune of being right above the epicenter of the biggest earthquake to hit Nepal since 1934, almost everyone in Laprak has left the village. The residents had felt queasy about staying there for years. In 1999, after 24 hours of incessant rain, a landslide swept away a woman, five houses, and large chunks of land. The government commissioned a report which recommended shifting the village somewhere else. Gurung claimed that the National Planning Commission was looking into the matter.
Moving more than 600 families of, on average, six members each, is a huge task and there’s no land to accommodate the village in Gorkha. Gurung reckons the only option is to find a place in the Terai. But do the villagers want to move? On May 12, he posed the question to an assembly of villagers, gathered to discuss what to do with the NPR 900,000 the government is granting to each village affected by the quake, and was met with no clear answers from village leaders.
“Let’s wait until a team of geologists and engineers arrive. We have to trust science,” said Marsingh Gurung, an old Maoist, who also served in the “three-party mechanism” that sat over the Ward Civil Forum.
Hasta Bahadur Gurung, a young father who was building a hut for himself, thought the idea ok if there was some guarantee of livelihood. He didn’t want to move to the Terai, but worried that Laprak, and the government land they built their huts on, was unsafe.
“Our earth is cracked,” he said, “how can we farm there? I feel nauseated when I go near the village.”
Gurung still carries the trauma of the earthquake—he said he ran for two hours “on a single breath” when the mountains around him shook—and a huge loan he took out to build his house. It cost NPR 600,000. He hadn’t even moved in.
I spent two days and three nights in Laprak with volunteers who’d ferried three trucks of tarps and food. There are many young men from Laprak who join the trekking and mountain climbing business and their connections have turned fruitful at its darkest hour. From Runglang in Gorkha, the base camp for expeditions to Laprak (which we reached on the night of May 11), it took nine hours of steep climbing, and an ascent of 2000 meters, to get to Laprak.
I was in Barpak, the epicenter of the first devastating quake, with Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, an Everest climber, who, together with her friends—including the famous Benegas Brothers, climbers from Patagonia—had mobilized 85 porters from Laprak to carry food and tarps to their village. The idea was to employ people from the community to carry the supplies, thus providing a small boost to the local economy, and eliminating the need to charter expensive (and limited) helicopters. Laprak was still five more arduous hours away. We were in a corner of Barpak, watching women and men try to recover anything they could from the debris, when the ground started shaking again. Women screamed and called their children’s names. Several old stone walls collapsed, and dust swirled above the ruins of fallen buildings. People who had been digging inside their flattened houses ran out. We watched the still-standing walls of collapsed buildings shake around us, but nothing more came down. There was little left to fall. The place looked like a war zone. About 70 people have died from this village. Many are in hospitals in Pokhara.
But the fear didn’t last long. Five minutes later, teenagers under the big tree near the top of the village were laughing and screaming “Quake!,” making fun of repeated aftershocks, scaring their friends. People no longer feared the earthquake as before. They were back on top of fallen buildings half an hour later.
Today, the dirt track to Barpak is open, and you can reach it on a tractor or a four-wheel drive vehicle. This road is unlikely to last the monsoon, however, given all the cracks and the landslides waiting to roll with heavy rain. When I returned to Barpak three days later, to the clamor of a hundred hammers fixing a hundred little things, the road to Laprak was still closed. Even when the excavator had fixed the roads, it seemed almost certain that the roads—and, more importantly, the trail—would be lost during the monsoon. Three weeks after the earthquake, all the villagers were left with were a few things they’d salvaged and a few sticks chopped from the forest to build a hut. Outside help, slow in coming, was clearly not enough for the village of about 4,000. They had tarps, a few blankets, packets of noodles and biscuits. Of the nine village wards, families in only three had received a sack of rice each.
I asked Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita what will happen once the impending rains wash away all the roads and trails to these remote villages.
“I fear a famine in a few months,” she said, “the disaster has just begun.”
Cover photo: The newly created settlement above Laprak. Dr. Sonam Lama