Homes are broken but hearts are not: Nepal Earthquakes’ One Year Anniversary


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A year has passed by after Nepal was struck by some of the biggest earthquakes in its history. Looking back we have been through some of the worst times of our lives. Thanks to the political affairs, recurrent earthquakes were not enough to add pain to already difficult situation but political unrest and border blockades after the promulgation of the new constitution created the humanitarian crisis in the country.  It is likely that these events will stay with most of us as ‘flash-bulb memories’ throughout our lifetime. I still remember vividly to this day, the details of my experience on 25 April at home in Kathmandu and on 12 May when I was in field at Sindhupalchowk. Those memories have been saved in my mind like movies that I can replay anytime.

According to official reports, 8 million out of 28 million total population were severely affected and nearly 9000 people died, over 22000 got injured, 150 went missing and hundreds of thousands lost their belongings and shelter across 14 districts from Western to Central North Regions of Nepal. Eight months later, National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was set up but the formal rebuilding program led by the government is yet to be started despite having international pledges of more than $US4 billion in aid. People have been forced to take loans to rebuild themselves although the government has promised them cash grants of NPR. 2,00,000 which have not been yet fulfilled. Seira Tamang correctly highlights that it’s the government’s duty to serve and protect its citizens at the times of blown up critical times like these but often they had found an excuse that Nepalese are resilient enough to bear these kinds of problems and they can cope up. We are sick and tired of those terms politically. Even psychologically, there are limits to such resilience and the government should be aware that to uphold the self-esteem and increase confidence of its citizens, it must respond to the needs and respect basic rights of its citizen.

On the local level, good hearted (upper)-middle class residents from Kathmandu and other districts rushed to the scenes to provide assistance to the victims by raising the fund from various sources.  It definitely provided the immediate relief to the needy people. However, as the days passed by, we even came to know that the same people had been receiving support number of times from new groups and the people from distant locations were left to fend themselves with nothing. Most of them had good intentions however, seeing them posting pictures of themselves in social media providing support focusing on themselves reminded me of the phenomenon called ‘white savior industrial complex’ termed by American writer Teju Cole who reminded the people who wanted to help that the ‘help’ should be provided by understanding the needs of the people rather than with the assumption that it should be given. Many NGOs and INGOs were also active immediately after the earthquakes but it is unfortunate that people from the affected districts say it has not made significant differences in their lives.

Regaining ‘sense of place’ is crucial in helping people affected earthquakes to adapt and restore their psychosocial well-being. People have a feeling/perception of belonging to the particular place where they feel safe and have a sense of authentic self. Often after disasters, the sense of place is lost or disrupted because of the physical destruction of the surroundings or forced movement to safer places. Social supports are broken, daily rituals/practices are hindered which further leads to loss of sense of place. Therefore, it is urgent to rebuild the communities as soon as possible and restore the ‘sense of place’ so that they feel comfortable, and have the sense of belonging. This theme has been well portrayed in a documentary titled ‘A Walnut Tree’ directed by Ammar Aziz which won Ram Bahadur Trophy For Best Film in Film South Asia 2015 Festival held in Kathmandu last year. Hope people will get assistance to rebuild their homes and communities before the upcoming monsoon but the time is running out. Sara Shneiderman & Mark Turin reports about Indigenous Thangmi community’s response to the  earthquakes.

In an English daily op-ed piece titled Time and Trauma, Dr. Brandon Kohrt writes that from the clinical perspective, the time frame of one month has special meaning. Often, medical professionals take that as the amount of time that must pass before a patient can qualify for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One year later, there are still recurrent mild shocks above 4 magnitude that has occurred times and again that has scared the hell out of people and pushed them out to the streets for safety. In the recent training related to community-based psychological first aid training, there were questions that the time has passed beyond months and if an individual is showing the signs and symptoms of traumatic reactions, then, should he or she be diagnosed with PTSD. After discussion on this topic, we came to the agreement that since it is an ongoing trauma, we need to see beyond time frame, we should pay more attention to the level of impairment, duration of the occurrence of the symptoms and how the individual is coping. As labelling people with PTSD or severe mental health problems is often stigmatizing, it could be counter-productive step in helping them. Jack Board reports how the trauma victims are fighting prejudice to improve mental health.

Many people came out to seek services for the mental health services. When I visited hospitals at the districts and talked with local counselors, they confirmed that among those who came for services, many had already been suffering from mental health problems since many years but had not dared to come out to seek for professional support due to stigma or simply because lack of awareness that supports are available and those problems can be solved. We must be aware that people are already suffering due to pre–existing social and other factors like poverty, gender inequality, low socio-economic status, caste discrimination, etc. and now earthquakes and impoverished conditions have increased the intensity of that suffering.

Meanwhile, there are some protective factors in our cultures as well, let’s take an example of Saa Paru (Gai Jatra) which is the annual festival celebrated by the people of Kathmandu, esp. Newars to commemorate the loss of their loved ones. It is a day the relatives of the dead in the past year go out in a procession with make-ups (children painted and dressed as cows) to create humor and also carrying religious meaning and move on in life despite the unrecoverable loss of the family member. It helps in the grieving process and accepting the loss at the larger level beyond family and particular community. It can interpreted as a psychosocial intervention that is already available in Nepali culture. Similarly, in other cultures also, there are specific practices that helps to promote the psychosocial well-being which needs to considered to understand how people grieve and cope with their losses.

On this day, we commemorate the valuable lives we have lost to the earthquakes and reaffirm that our homes have been broken but our hearts are not so, we shall strive for better times as small steps we take can make big differences.

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I am grateful to Jamuna Maharjan Shrestha (Senior Counselor) for her advice and Jebin Gautam for his support while writing this post.

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