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Written by Kirti Tarang

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Nagarkot Valley, overlooking Kathmandu, Lalitpur & Bhaktapur. Two hours before the earthquake.

(pic courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/MonishaAjgaonkarPhotography)

It couldn’t have been more poetic- I was circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum of Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, when it happened.

I was reading a list of things that I want from God when in unison all the pigeons on my left flew diagonally up. The collaborate sound of more than hundreds of wings flapping was like a tiger’s roar. It was breath-taking & in slow motion-I thought it happens just in movies. For the next couple of minutes life became a movie scene.

As the pigeons flew, the crowd began chanting- ‘Har Har Mahadev’. They were joyous, the chants. Honestly, I thought some festive ritual is going on. Still, something was odd. It was my head. My head was spinning. Then I realized that no it’s not my head but the world around me that’s spinning. Good God! It’s an earthquake!!!

It came like a life lesson, teaching me the one thing I would’ve never learnt otherwise-

How to keep Safety & Sanity when trapped in a natural disaster:

1. Keeping calm saves lives & shows our national character

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No earthquake was strong enough to shake this guard from his post. His composure was our source of reassurance.

When in an earthquake- run to an open area, check place for pillars, electric wires, cracks etc, sit on knees, bend forward, hands behind the head, a cloth covering nose & mouth. I knew the drill. I did the opposite.

It was a decision that I took; because in situations like these, less people die of tremors & more because of stampede that follows & I was in a super crowded place. So, when I saw all the people have moved to the courtyard of the temple, I just sat where I was, hand on my head. Hoping the structure is sturdy; waiting for the madness to subside.

The structure was steady, but there was no madness to subside. The crowd was calm, joyfully chanting ‘Har Har Mahadev’. When the earthquake seemed to be over, I looked around, people were walking as if nothing had happened! As I was walking out, the destruction was the only proof that a tragedy has struck. In fact, it sounds really dumb but when I went to the shoe counter, I actually asked the man in charge of our shoes, if it was in my head or something really had happened. He smiled & said, ” Madam, worst in past 80 years”. “Then why are you standing here? That too in a closed room”, I wondered. “Madamji, it’s my duty. Otherwise, how will people get the shoes? There’s debris outside, you can’t walk barefoot.” He said handing my packet.

At that time I was amazed, then I got used to it. It wasn’t a one off incidence, it’s the national character of Nepal.

2. Rescue is more important than Art/ News

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Hands clearing the debris > Hands holding lens

As I wandered scared & aimlessly, not knowing the next step to take, I saw a westerner zooming in his DSLR’s lens at a young doctor, who was having a meltdown. Impulsively, I grabbed his lens & yelled, “It’s rude!” “I know it’s rude, but I am from Press”, he said, showing his card. I was about to apologize & back off, when he added, “You see I don’t get opportunities like this. Shiva… God of destruction.. this doctor, she was running a blood donation drive here…she’s so beautiful, this picture can be an icon like that Afghan girl’s”. So, I moved ahead, hugged that girl tight, ruining his frame. If only he would’ve said, “It’s my duty to report” instead of “opportunity”.

He was a tall, strong man, we could’ve used those hands in clearing debris. Is Pulitzer more important than human dignity & humanity?

When the adrenaline of anger drained out I was back to being lost, scared & helpless. Nepalese radio was the only source of news there, since we could hear it in the cars at the parking lot. All mobile networks were jammed.  ‘What was the strength of the earthquake, how many people have died’. Was what they broadcast, when all we wanted to know- ‘Which routes are blocked, which road is safer, where is shelter, where is medical aid.’ No one spoke about that. I was agitated that why reportage isn’t rescue oriented? Aren’t lives more important than information?

That moment I pledged that I will shield myself from ‘media’ news, they are simply medium of terror & rumors. Local authorities are the best way to get information- accurate, in calm tone & balanced- the way news should be. Also, it’s a good idea to sieve the information coming from fellow survivors. Don’t fall in the traps of rumors & please don’t spread any. Be mindful of what you speak to others.

3. Create a support group

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Luggage trolley with shawls as cover create an earthquake safe refuge

It took me an hour of trekking uphill while the ground was shaking & then hitch hiking to reach the airport, where I had left my friend. She wasn’t there!

The tremors kept coming & like a mad woman I was screaming her name, showing her pictures to people if they have seen her. My heart was racing, the head felt dizzy. I was sure if earthquake won’t kill me, heart attack would. Then it occurred to me that to find my friend, to get rescued, I first need to stay alive. Now, the question was- How?

That’s when I spotted them. Two tall men, wearing sweat shirts that read ‘Low Alpine’ & carrying bags that read ‘Everest Base Camp’. “Okay, adventurers. Will know how to survive in adverse conditions”, I thought & leaned closer to read the names on the bag tags. “Oh! Israelis! Must have served in Army.” I knew that I must stick around with them, these men know how to survive.

Apparently, survival is simple. The elder one later confessed, “If you take the attention off your sufferings, & shift focus to aiding others, you are calmer, think better.”

So, I took a deep breathe. Closed my eyes & replayed the events in my head- Everything around me was crumbling, people were dying, losing their loved one, & there I was unscratched, with food, water, phone, money & passport safe in the sling bag of my shoulder. Why? Why did God decide to save me? I am no better than people trapped in debris. Perhaps, now I can try to be a better person.

That thought was the seed of the support group. We found a safe spot to park ourselves at the airport & began sharing our resources with others. The Israeli men had water, sleeping bags & nerves in order, I had chocolates, wipes, shawl & medicines the Chinese group had access to news in Mandrin, Nepalese were translating the local news & they had one phone that worked. I made a phone call home to inform that I am safe & have resources to survive, and told them to try to reach Monisha, my friend & tell her my location.

Around 5pm, my brother could get through her & Monisha, could find our group, she was escorted by a South Asian boy. I knew the worst was over. Yes, the tremors kept coming but we were in a safe spot with food, water, medicines & warm clothes. It became like an adventure camp, we were laughing, talking art culture, of course Bollywood & aiding others. People with small kids & injuries were on our priority list.

It came most handy at night, since it started to drizzle we couldn’t stay in open ground and had to seek a shed, which made us vulnerable to tremors. There we met three Indian medical students, they were trained in disaster management. They created a system of night watch & kept the mood light with jokes.

4. Look for the Indian Army

I don’t know why? I don’t even understand how but the Indian Army people always have the solution irrespective of the problem.

So, I began inquiring about the military attache to the Indian Embassy. We found Maj. Amit Lahkar around 6 in the evening. He was in civil clothes & apparently there since 12:30pm, making arrangements for rescue & evacuation. He met with a reassuring smile, “Are you hurt anywhere?” And then, he informed us that airport is open but flights aren’t likely to operate tonight so he inquired if we had any place to seek shelter for the night, as it was getting cold. He suggested certain shelter places & safe spots. I even introduced him our ‘multi national’ support group. With much love & compassion, he answered everyone’s queries. Then just out of courtesy I asked, “Is your family safe?”. “Ma’m, I am yet to talk to them”, replied with no change in expressions.

I met him again next day. I had two Assamese women with me, whom Monisha & I had rescued. They had lost everything, including their families & ids in the debris of Thamel. They were in urgent need of medical attention. Maj. Amit could converse with them in Assamese, he was trying to understand their situation, when the most unexpected thing happened!

A group who were ironically wearing ‘I love India’ T-Shirts, began mauling him, accusing him of ‘priority check-ins’. I was about to jump in and explain that ‘priority check-in’ of the injured is the way it should be, but I was swept away by a mob of people screaming, ‘Hai- hai..’ & of course news channels followed them. I couldn’t believe they were shaming a man for trying to provide aid to injured women!

Maj. Amit, left the situation & went inside the airport. I was enraged that the ladies can’t go home, because of mob. There was only so much I could sedate them with pain killers. The tremors were on. Dragging them to run, making them kneel now & again was damaging their already injured legs. I was contemplating, the next step when I saw Maj. Amit emerging again with a team of guards & councilor. As mob got busy mauling the Councilor & his guards Maj. Amit sneaked us from the other way, which was long & uneven. Monisha & I were once again dragging the ladies, while Maj. Amit kept a watch on the mob, apologizing that under these circumstances, he couldn’t provide for wheel-chair.

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I thought it was over when we reached the immigration place, now the ladies can go home, but we had another hurdle. The officer informed us that he can’t let the ladies go, since they have no ids to prove that they are Indians. Again, it was Maj. Amit who found a way out. He informed the officer that Monisha & I have rescued them, we have our passports & the ids, so we can sign an undertaking for them. Instead of arguing over a rule he found a solution & got the ladies on board. Monisha & I were also sent since we were the undertaking personnel cum medical attendants.

5. Help as much you can

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Inform local authorities about the areas where injured are & areas where people are still under debris

Even if you don’t believe in the law of karma, look at the practical side of helping:

In my little sling bag, I didn’t have everything that we needed, but since we were sharing everything that we had without even being asked, people were reverting the gesture. On the night of the earthquake when we were lying down, a teenager called Subhash came to us with two plates full of fried rice & an apology for not having spoons. The Gorkhas provided us with sheets & blankets, otherwise the chill would have got us that night.

It’s not just food, water & blanket you can help by so many things, a safety pin, a mouth wash, sanitary napkin, phone charger, a plastic bag. Never know what can come handy to whom, one just needs to be aware of the people around & their needs.

Even small gestures can have immense impact. For instance, when we had reached Delhi, a bus was taking us from the aircraft to the airport. They didn’t have ambulance, so that’s how Monisha & I were to take the injured ladies too. I was trying to get the elderly injured lady on the bus, but it was turning out to be difficult. The lady couldn’t climb & I was too frail to lift. A young boy was standing right in front us, happily chatting on phone. All he had to do was to hold the lady’s hand, while I lift her from waist. He just didn’t bother! An air force personnel saw me struggling & rushed to help. I wonder, if that boy really needed military training to extend, literary, a helping hand.

Interestingly, the most helpful thing is something we all have in inexhaustible amount- a smile. In tough situations, just one smile, a reassuring touch is all one needs to keep one’s problem solving skills going. It’s also wise to keep people around us calm, so that when things get tougher, as they are bound to, the situation of stampede can be a avoided.

6. Be thankful for the little blessings

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If someone offers you a blanket, it’s only good manners to fold it before returning.

I remember when I first saw the rescue aircraft in Kathmandu, the sight was followed by the sound of a lady complaining, “What kind of plane is this? Why they couldn’t fly us commercial with comfortable seats?”

Even if she didn’t understand that a cargo plane can come with supplies & go back with more number of survivors than a commercial aircraft; why couldn’t she appreciate that she is going home when thousands are still stranded?!

Another woman in the Gorkha place, where we had seek shelter at night, began her morning complaining, “Yahan ke log achche nahin hai. Ladeez log ka khayal rakhna chahiye” (People here aren’t good. They should look after ladies) She said this while sipping a hot tea that was brought to her by a Nepalese woman without even asking on her make-shift bed provided by the Gorkhas. A make-shift bed of mattress, blankets an pillow was such a luxury there. She was provided that because she had kids & yes everything was on the house.

Everyone’s life faces the same threat. Do we really have to forget that others are humans too!

Moroever, when there’s a dance of destruction all around us, it’s stupid to inflicting mental agony on self.

HOW WE CAN HELP FROM HOME

1. By not calling non-stop

Phone battery is of utmost importance to the stranded person. The family & friends can assign one person who will coordinate with the victim & rest can pass the message on.

2. Putting pressure on government through social media for rescue & aid. Make them aware that they are being watched.

3. Insisting that media does rescue aiding coverage, instead of looking for ‘great stories’.

4. Sharing information. We don’t know what can help whom.

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