Returning home from Nepal by Hanna Ruszczyk

Day 5 Wednesday 29/04/2015 and Day 6 Thursday 30/04/2015. My last email about my experience.

I arrived in Patna, India after an uneventful but long 12-hour journey yesterday (Wednesday). Three hours to the border, two hours at the border (the Indian officials were taking their time) and then almost seven hours from R to Patna in Bihar State (two and half hours on unpaved pot hole ridden roads). We arrived in the dark, after traffic jams, witnessing three car accidents, two-road accidents induced brawls, and one injured person who had been hit by a vehicle and his bicycle was broken. It sounds like fiction.
I was so fortunate that R, my RA, crossed the border with me and helped me with the procedures and helped me find my taxi. I would have struggled on my own. I expected to find an everyday chaotic scene at the border and it did not disappoint. R, the border crossing, is closed for foreigners; Nepali and Indian people cross freely and easily. This porous border allows for friendly relationships between the two nations, including marrying. (The Terai inhabitants have generally had more affinity with India than with Kathmandu, this has been a lingering source of worry for the national government of Nepal).
Since the Indian government (48 hours after Earthquake) relaxed border restrictions; on Monday evening, Durham and I agreed I would evacuate from Nepal on Wednesday. I needed to arrange a car and driver and I wanted to understand the situation at the border. The trip was very smooth and I am so grateful for all the support and organization of logistics involved in getting me to Patna. R, organized the trip for me, UNICEF gave me information about the border crossing and BSDMA kept in contact with me during the journey and I felt I was in safe hands. I begin my final homeward bound journey on Friday night. Flights from Patna– Delhi-Dubai- Newcastle. (there were no flights available on Thursday).
On Wednesday, I left the Global Hotel before eight am after meeting with S from the municipality for an hour. It was so sad listening to him speak of the lack of relief efforts to the epicenter due to the terrain and landslides. He has(d) extended family there. From Bharatpur, a group of youths who are familiar with the mountainous terrain and who are obviously physically able to handle the climbing will go and investigate the reality of the villages, come back to report and relief will start. The question is how? The terrain is impassable, it has been days already, and in six weeks monsoon season will start with the increased possibly of landslides? It is so difficult to comprehend. I feel the criticisms of the government’s response to the epicenter difficult to accept. ‘Something’ must be done, but the topography limits intervention at the moment. The critical question is will the central government focus on rebuilding the capital and its 2-3 million people to the complete detriment of the rest of the country that house 26 million of its inhabitants. Cities in Terai already worry.
On Day 5 (Wednesday), hundreds of buses were beginning to transport people out of Kathmandu Valley. (There was a shortage of buses on Monday and Tuesday partly because the ethnic group that drives public buses in KV had left the valley to try to rescue their extended family in the epicenter). This effort to move people out of the valley is sensible to decrease the pressure on the valley’s diminishing resources. The National Society for Earthquake Technology has issued an international request for engineers who could come and assist in assessing the structural damage to the thousands of buildings in the devastated Kathmandu Valley. People are scared of their own homes at the moment. Any volunteers?? If so, write to me and I will get you in contact with our wonderful NSET colleagues.
The terrible rains yesterday morning had everyone whispering the words, “landslides, landslides”. The fear is land slides on the East West Highway leaving KV from the west. There were two colleagues who were waiting for their children to be on some of those buses yesterday headed out of the valley. The fear just continues. The trauma, the lack of sleep, inability to eat, the spinning head. I know we were all functioning at diminished capacity.
I wonder how the national government, the UN, the relief coordinators, colleagues at the National Society for Earthquake Technology are coping. I hope and pray Nepal and the response to the earthquake in Nepal will be compared positively to the response in Haiti (5th anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake was in January this year). (Death toll was 250,000, the failure of the international aid community to properly respond in a coordinated fashion was stunning, and the knock on effects of the disaster are still with Haiti).
Nationally, everyone is trying to do what he or she can. Throughout the country, people are collecting shelter items and clothes and will be sending them to the epicenter (Bharatpur as a staging ground since it is so close to the epicenter). For example, the Lions Club nationally has asked all branches to collect money, no matter how small, and send it to the headquarters. Some want to contribute to the honest Prime Minister’s relief fund, others are still asking what is the most “authentic” way of contributing. The hotels in Bharatpur are sorting out food, blankets and water to be sent.
After my arrival in Patna at 19:30, I tidied myself up and went to dinner at the home of the executive director of the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (responsible for the safety of over 100 million people!). We had just seen each other at the ESRC / NERC funded Earthquake without Frontiers nine country conference of natural and social scientists in Kathmandu. Unbelievable timing.
Anil described the damage of the Earthquake in Bihar, India, 80 deaths and the damage to the structural integrity of an unknown number of buildings (I imagine it will be less than in Kathmandu Valley though). The BSDMA has already been training engineers and architects on Tuesday and Wednesday to assess damage in the hardest hit northern districts. The procedures to decide how to address the most structurally damaged needs to be worked out. In Bihar, there was mass panic according to BSDMA. I do not think this was the case across the board in Nepal. In KV, there was panic but it calmed down relatively quickly. In Bharatpur, people were calm and collected on Saturday and continued in that manner in the days afterwards even through the horrible after shocks. In Bihar, the government asked people to return to their homes by the second night to avoid issues with looting, in Nepal people were advised to stay outside for the first two nights (the focus on the first 72 hours).
The Bihar government has offered free food and shelter to anyone from Nepal who would like to come to Bihar. At 23:00, I was taken to the Red Cross office in Patna and I saw the loading of several relief trucks with family packs (a complete set of items that could be used by 3 generations of a family), blankets and of course water. This relief effort for Nepal from Bihar started two days ago and will now pick up speed. The Bihar government is very keen to support Nepal and will provide whatever support is needed. Anil asked me to share my experience with the BSDMA staff and the international aid community this afternoon at a scheduled meeting they were organizing. I am not certain how coherent I will be.
In the last days, I have repeatedly been told that I am lucky or that I brought luck to Bharatpur (which escaped damage) since I am ‘studying earthquakes’ and now I have experienced one during my PhD. In the back of my mind, I wonder what would have been people’s response to me if Bharatpur had been damaged. It may not have been so positive. I wonder if they would have thought I had induced it. [During my masters by research fieldwork in Lalitpur and Kirtipur in the KV, people did not want to speak of earthquakes for fear it would come to fruition]. I was a bit hesitant on Saturday, walking through Ward 4 (before we knew there was no damage); where people knew I had been asking questions about everyday risks and hazards especially earthquake awareness and preparation. I was already known by some as the earthquake lady.
I do not know why I participated in the ‘great earthquake’ (as the media is calling in in Nepal). Originally, I had envisioned conducting a comparison between KV and Patna. This changed after the progression panel that I had last year (they thought I was being too ambitious with two very different fieldwork sites in short fieldwork trips). I had a scheduled fieldwork trip to Bharatpur for March / April but my husband had to travel to Central Asia in March so my fieldwork trip was delayed to April / May. Bharatpur should have been damaged by the earthquake, it is closer than Kathmandu to the epicenter. I did not collect the data I had hoped for during this trip and now I am going home early. My PhD will need to be changed. It is all a bit much. The question is what will I do with my research now…. (and I have no clue). I need to meet with my supervisors next week.
First, I need to get back home and see my family and friends. My husband has told me our children are more concerned about which episode of Top Gear to watch; that in itself is comforting. One less thing to worry about.