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Without government help, rural Nepalese try to move past a devastating earthquake

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A Nepalese woman knocks off old concrete from bricks so that they may be used again. / Greg Sandoval

Spread out below the hillside village of Nagarjun is Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and largest city. And for the people who live in the hillside village, the proximity makes their situation all the more frustrating. Though the villagers are just a short drive from their country’s seat of power, nobody from the government has contacted them about receiving aid, and it’s been more than a week since Nepal suffered a magnitude 7.8 earthquake responsible for the deaths of at least 7,200 people.

A lot of press has been generated in the past few days by the inability of Nepal’s government to deliver earthquake relief to the country’s remote regions, but a visit to some of the rural areas less than an hour’s drive from Kathmandu shows that those living in the city’s backyard haven’t fared much better.

In visits to places like Nagarjun and Chobhar, which is about 7 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu, I found that people aren’t putting much stock in government promises of assistance or international aid. It’s barely been a week since many of these individuals saw their homes damaged or destroyed or loved ones killed, and already they’re scavenging for building materials, laying down brick, and seeking loans.

Kathmandu
Bai Lal Maharjan, in black, surveys the bricks he and has family salvaged from his home, which buckled during Nepal's earthquake. (Greg Sandoval)

Bai Lal Maharjan, in black, surveys the bricks he and has family salvaged from his home, which buckled during Nepal's earthquake.

"We haven’t seen anyone [from the government], and we really don’t expect to," said Radme Shyam Lama, 46, a businessman who lives in Nagarjun. "We hope they help us with money, but we must act as if we are on our own."

Many Nepalese must now labor under unthinkable circumstances. The impact from the loss of life can’t be overstated: on one block in Chobar, for example, 10 people lost their lives, including a 12-year-old girl. Whatever else happens to Nepal in coming days, some of the people here will provide the world with a lesson in resilience.

"We haven’t seen anyone [from the government], and we really don’t expect to."

They have little choice but to move fast, says Lama. The monsoon season starts in less than a month, and the flimsy tents that many Nepalese are living under won’t protect them from the heavy rains, he said. Lama’s family want out of the tents as soon as possible and have set to work building more stable temporary shelters, using corrugated tin and bamboo poles stripped from irreparable structures.

On Friday, Lama also put his nephew and another man to work repairing his parents' home. Lama has repaired septic tanks and water-filtration systems in the area, skills he also put to use in 2005 working for companies providing support to US troops in Iraq. The same day, some of the women from the village anxiously accompanied a representative from an Italian non-governmental organization, which focuses on supporting Nepal’s schools, as he assessed damage to a local campus. The women are hoping to get the school reopened soon.

The same sort of activity could be found in Chobar on Saturday. Bai Lal Maharjan, 59, had already made plans to build a new home using salvaged bricks from the house he lived in for decades, which collapsed around him as he stood safely in a doorway during the quake. On Saturday, he and his family were crouched near a waist-high pile of bricks using hammers and chisels to chip off old cement. They tossed the broken and cracked bricks away. While watching Bai Lal work, it was hard to fathom that just a few days before, he watched as his younger brother’s lifeless body was pulled from the rubble of his home.

The same goes for Bishnu Maharjan, a relative of Bai Lal who lived nearby. Bishnu, 31, is the father of the 12-year-old girl who died. A week after her death, Bishnu could barely discuss the girl as he tried to clean up some of the debris at his home and quickly find suitable shelter for his wife and son. In a few weeks, he is due to leave for Kuwait for his job as a security guard. Bishnu is among the more than 4 million people from Nepal, mostly men, who leave to work abroad every year, according to the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank focused on humanitarian issues.

Kathmandu
"We were living in bombs," said one resident of a village near Kathmandu where 10 people lost their lives. (Greg Sandoval)

"We were living in bombs," said one resident of a village near Kathmandu where 10 people lost their lives.

That’s just one of the challenges some people face here when trying to patch their lives. All the people I spoke with who say they planned on applying for a bank loan acknowledge that obtaining one is typically very difficult in Nepal. And even if they do, interests rates are high. What’s more, people like Lama are still paying off loans for their now-destroyed houses.

"We’re back in huts. This is natural. This is the natural way of things."

Few people in Nepal appear to have even heard of homeowner’s insurance — there just isn’t that kind of of safety net available here to most Nepalis. The good news is that the government has promised to compensate the family members of those who died, but the government has a terrible record of making good on these kinds of death benefits, according to reports.

Nevermind the money, says Koman Singh Lama (no relation to Radme), who is from Kavre. He said, while attending the cremation of an 83-year-old neighbor killed in the temblor, that he and his village would be happy if someone from the government just returned his calls. He said they have made "countless" requests for tents but have yet to receive a response.

Said Radme Shyam Lama, the businessman from Nagarjun: "We started out in huts and then moved to bigger, more modern homes. We’re back in huts. This is natural. This is the natural way of things."