“I don’t know how to ask you this but are you able to go with me to Nepal?” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It was the voice of none other than my good friend and mentor Harmandar Singh, who is well respected for his work in the Advertising, Media and Communications fraternity in Malaysia.
I’ve never done this before and it was short notice with no time to think it over. Needless to say there was no question that my answer would be anything but a resounding “yes”. Hurriedly the team members got introduced over Whatsapp and Ham (as he is affectionately known) proceeded to lay down the rules of engagement once on ground. We got off loaded several times during the week due to airline seat availability issues but we finally made it to KLIA2 for our flight to Kathmandu on May 1st, a good 6 days after the quake hit Nepal.
Arriving to a chaotic airport in Kathmandu we waited over 2 hours for our check in luggage to finally reach the terminal conveyor belts. The tiny airport was innundated by medical, relief and SAR teams from across the world scrambling to get their supplies, luggage and clear customs formalities. We checked into our B&B hotel just after 1am and managed a few hours of sleep before we were ready to visit the field hospital setup by Mercy Malaysia in the Sankhu District 15 kms from downtown Kathmandu.
Along the way, we witnessed first hand the devastation and destruction from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had hit this area just a week before. Homes torn apart and reduced to rubble and some split in half right down the middle. At the field hospital we could not help but feel proud of the dedication shown by the volunteer medical team treating injured villagers. Lending a hand wherever we could, we spent the day with an amazing group of physicians and volunteers who made a difference in the lives of many displaced villagers from the surrounding area. Being able to speak a little Hindi came in handy assisting the medical team to reach out to locals who came in for treatment.
The following day we ventured out into the city to document the destruction at popular tourist sites across the city. The first stop was Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having never been to Kathmandu before I was unable to visualize what it was that was damaged by the quake. Only much later upon Googling images of the site as it stood before the quake did I begin to understand the extent of damage. The entire central temple structure at Durbar Square was simply gone. The same was the case at the Hanuman and Chengu Narayan Temples we visited that day. Perhaps most poignant was seeing a priest standing amidst the rubble of what was once his temple, helping to clear debris with a dazzed look on his face. It was a truly sad realization that irreplaceable heritage structures were now all but a heap of sand and brick.
At the Gurudwara Guru Nanak Satsang in Kathmandu the local sikh community was busy in its own humantarian and relief efforts with an open kitchen providing food and shelter to anyone who was in need. Truck loads of food supplies were coming in from as far as Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in New Delhi as well as from Sikh temples in Amritsar and Sikkhim.
Back at the hotel busy transmitting images and video footage for the local media in Malaysia we experienced a 4.4 magnitude tremor. It shook the walls around us and rattled our tables and chairs. For a good 10 seconds we looked at each other in disbelief. We had just experienced our first earthquake. The hotel had already been partially damaged by the first quake and we thanked our lucky stars it remained standing. Daily there were 6-7 reported tremors and each night as we turned in to sleep we wondered if we would make it to the next morning.
On my final day in Kathmandu I spent the morning taking a walk through Sankhu Village located next to the field hospital. Here I felt the true enormity of the destruction in the wake of the quake. With the help of a local Nepali volunteer who took me through the ruins of what was once a busy community, we saw an abandoned village of which 90% lay destroyed. The Nepali Armed Forces and Indian SAR teams were assisting in recovery efforts however looking around me all I could think of was where do you even begin to start looking for survivors. As we walked through the rubble we entered a courtyard where all that was left standing was a statue of Buddha with a framed photograph propped up against it.
Like a ghost town, displaced villagers had fled as it was now just a huge mess of fallen homes. The few who remained had heartwrenching tales to tell. However they had not lost hope of rebuilding and moving on.
I left Kathmandu with a bitter taste. This was not how I had wanted to see this beautiful country.
The Roving Photographer (Originally posted: May 11, 2015.)