Nepal earthquake: fears grow over fate of thousands near epicentre
Jason Burke, GORKHA: Officials and relief workers in Nepal are desperately seeking information on about 10,000 people living in the northernmost areas of Gorkha district, where the epicentre of Saturday’s earthquake was located.
Nothing is known of the condition of villagers in these remote and mountainous areas near the frontier with Tibet, but up to 90% of buildings in nearby areas a similar distance from the epicentre have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.
“There are 2,000 families living in this area, which means around 10,000 or 11,000 people. There is no electricity, no phone, no means of transport [there],” said Dhruba Devkota, project manager of Save The Children, one of the NGOs beginning to bring relief to Gorkha.
The district, which has a population of about 350,000, is the worst hit in terms of physical damage, with 90% of schools and 80% of health facilities rendered unusable. The overall death toll in Nepal has now reached 5,000, with more than 7,000 injured.
Uddab Prasad Timilsina, the most senior government official in Gorkha district, said some information had reached the administration from the northern area over satellite phones carried by two groups of about 20 mainly French trekkers walking near Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest peak, who are now trapped there.
“We know there have been some big landslides but we have very little information, and none from some parts. These people cannot be reached,” Timilsina said.
The confirmed death toll in Gorkha as a whole is 402 people, though the count is likely to rise.
:: Villagers plead for food after an aid helicopter landed at the remote mountain village of Gumda, Gorkha district, Nepal. Photograph: Wally Santana/AP
Millions of lives across Nepal were potentially saved because the quake struck at nearly noon, when most people in rural areas were working in the fields and because it was a weekend so schools were empty. “We were all outside so were not harmed,” said Shanta Yanamay, a grocer in Gorkha Bazaar, the district centre.
However, Yanamay’s house was destroyed and he is now living with his family under his tent with most of the rest of his village who have also lost their homes. “The conditions are bad. There is diahorrhea and other illness starting now because there is no clean water or toilets,” he told the Guardian.
One focus of concern is the valley of Barpack, about 10 miles from the epicentre, which local aid workers said was as “densely populated as Kathmandu”. Helicopter crews have reported that entire villages have been razed there.
The local administration in Gorkha Bazaar, another 10 miles from the epicentre, has requested three extra helicopters to allow further rescue flights and aid distribution of vital “shelter kits” including blankets and tarpaulins. It currently has six but these have been hampered by recent poor weather. Landslides caused by rain and aftershocks have cut further roads with remote districts.
Timilsina, the chief official in Gorkha, said he had been forced to order tents from India: “I have got 5,000 coming from Delhi and Calcutta but I need 50,000.”
Casualties are still arriving at Gorkha Bazaar’s hospital, one of the few unharmed in the quake. Late in the afternoon, Nepali military medics carried in an old woman with multiple fractures who had been brought from her village by helicopter.
Nearby lay Ganu Gurung, 23, and her six month year old son, who had been flown in from Simjung village where all 19 houses had been destroyed. She and others lay on bare, thin mattresses in the concrete yard of the hospital.
Gurung, who had spinal injuries, had survived on dry biscuits for three days before being picked up by a helicopter.
“Many other people are badly injured and still in the village but they are scared to come to the hospital because they think there will be another earthquake and it will fall on them,” Gurung said.
Dr Sudha Dev Kota, the medical superintendent at the hospital, said the seven doctors at the small facility housed in bare brick buildings had treated more than 200 people since Saturday. Most had serious fractures, or injuries to the head or spine.
“We are exhausted. Some aid is now arriving and some European NGOs have come so we are beginning to feel better,” Kota said.
Power and phone communications have also now been restored to Gorkha Bazaar, though not to outlying districts, where electricity was always haphazard. For 72 hours after the quake, the hospital had no power.
The UN said the quake of magnitude 7.9, affected 8.1 million people and that 1.4 million needed food assistance.
A series of bottlenecks is slowing the entry of aid into the country. Nepal’s sole international airport, in Kathmandu, is massively congested. Though some major NGOs had stockpiles of basic non-perishable items in Nepal before the quake, the poor country’s inadequate road system has posed massive problems even in areas that emerged relatively unscathed from the quake.
The problems were made even worse on Wednesday by a mass exodus from Kathmandu.
Tens of thousands crowded onto buses to leave the city, motivated by the prospect of further earthquakes, epidemics and a breakdown in law and order.
By 8am, more than 300 packed buses and coaches had passed the checkpoint on the main western highway out of the city, officials stationed there said, nearly 10 times the usual number.
Most were heading for distant regions containing the family homes of many Kathmandu residents. One officials said the total number of those leaving the city since Tuesday could reach 300,000, more than a 10th of the city’s total population. “They keep coming I’ve never seen it like this, said sub-inspector Tara Bhattrai, in charge of the Thankot checkpoint. “They are going to all destinations”.
Supplies are running thin and aftershocks have strained nerves in the city. Many of those travelling appeared in a state of near panic.
“I’m afraid. In Kathmandu life is a struggle. We have a rented home there and our own house is in the west and there is no earthquake there. My parents are worried very much, “said Lokraz pant, 20,an engineering student.
Others feared anarchy. “I’m going home where there is food and safety. Here there is no food. There is no government support. There is no government,” said Sarlahi Singh, 30, a government scientist.
Massive lines of thousands of people had formed overnight for buses the government had promised to provide.
Sarmila Panthi, 24, had started queuing for buses at 2am to go to her home in Dang district in western Nepal but was unable to get a place. “I waited eight hours with my one year old child,” she said. “We fear an epidemic … and there’s chances of earthquake.”
When the buses promised by the government failed to materialise, scuffles broke out.
:: Nepalese police push back residents who began protesting after waiting for hours in line to board buses from Kathmandu. Photograph: Prakash Nathema/AFP/Getty Images
There was anger elsewhere too. The Nepali prime minister, Sushil Koirala, was heckled in central Kathmandu while a group of protesters broke into government offices in Dolakha district, east of the capital, and burnt the chair of the senior official.
In Lalitpur district in the Kathmandu valley, there were demonstrations against officials. Bindu Tamang, 25, said no officials had made any attempt to help the hundreds in her village without shelter or food. Yada Koirala, the senior local bureaucrat, said he had limited resources.
In Gorkha district heavily armed police and soldiers stood behind rolls of barbed wire guarding piles of relief material destined for distant villages rather than the local crowd which had gathered.
The government acknowledged it had been overwhelmed by the devastation from the deadliest quake in Nepal in over 80 years.
“There have been some weaknesses in managing the relief operation,” Minendra Rijal, communications minister, told Nepal’s Kantipur Television.
In Gorkha, Timilsina said criticism was unfair. “We are doing our best. We are working 18 hours a day.”
:: (Source: The Guardian) Additional reporting by Ishwar Rauniyar in Kathmandu.