Another powerful earthquake rattled Nepal on Monday, leaving dozens dead and thousands injured. The latest upheaval followed one of the worst earthquakes in the country’s history — a 7.8-magnitude quake that killed more than 8,000 and left many more homeless.
“When we felt the ground shaking, my mother wanted to run, but I was afraid that we would break our legs if we ran,” Ngawang Dorjee Tamang, a 17-year-old from Langtang Village told me of the April 25 earthquake.
He and his mother took hold of a nearby rock and braced themselves as the earthquake yielded way to a landslide of snow, mud, and stones. From his position on the mountain slope, Tamang remembered looking down at valley’s river — the falling debris had left it completely black.
The sight of the muddied river perturbed Tamang. Seeing it so affected by the quake made him worry about what it may have done to his family.
“I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do,” Tamang said in a mixture of English and Nepali. “My mother was crying, and eventually I started crying too.”
His uncle and three cousins would later be found dead, holding each other next to the river. Although his father’s body has yet to be found, he is believed to be dead.
The havoc wrought when the earthquake struck at noon was a far cry from the festivities Tamang and others in the valley enjoyed the night before.
On the night of the April 24, Langtang Village celebrated Ghawa, an annual Buddhist ceremony believed to help dead souls reach heaven. Hundreds from neighboring villages gathered to sing, dance, and drink.
The celebrations stretched on long into the night, and by its end, Tamang’s great uncle, Dawa Tamang, became drunk and insisted on going to his yak hut farther up the valley.
Realizing that their elderly relative was “out of his mind,” Tamang and his cousin accompanied their uncle back to his hut where they all decided to spend the night.
The following morning, Langtang Village, the main hub in Langtang Valley, was usually quiet. On a normal day, villagers would be up with the sun to attend to their yaks and daily chores before heading out to work on their fields. The previous night’s festivities kept them from getting an early start, but Tamang — who was helping his family build a new house — couldn’t spare a morning of work. He met his mother in the fields and his father went to collect building materials near the river.
That’s when the earthquake hit, leaving Tamang stranded behind a rock alongside his mother — and plagued with worry about his father.
That night, he and his mother joined other villagers who camped together in the open behind some rocks. The aftershocks that followed the earthquake caused rocks to fall down the surrounding hillsides, replacing their hopes for rest with fear.
Covering shrub-strewn rolling hills and Buddhist stone carvings, the landslide caused by the earthquake left the area debris-ridden and impassable. After four days of hunkering down amid rocks, a local helicopter airlifted Tamang and other villagers to Kyanjin, a village further up the valley.
Once at Kyanjin, Tamang felt torn between staying and trying to uncover lost loved ones, or evacuating.
“My sister and other relatives had already evacuated to Kathmandu,” he said. “My mom and I decided that I should leave and help [my relatives in the city], while she would stay behind and look for my father.”
Two days later, Tamang flew by helicopter to Dhulikhel, a small town on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. He didn’t have enough money for a taxi, so he rode two hours by public bus to the Kathmandu camp in the northwestern part of the city where his sister said she was staying.
When another earthquake rocked Kathmandu earlier this week, the camp let out a collective shudder of grief, sobbing and wondering about the fates of those still in the valley.
Tamang’s mother arrived in Kathmandu on the day of the latest earthquake with the news he most feared: She had been unable to find her husband and believes he was swept away by debris.
Now Tamang lives at the makeshift camp along with his mother and sister. Tucked away behind multi-storied concrete buildings and a collapsed supermarket, is a gleaming yellow monastery. It’s in front of the religious site that Langtang residents assembled clusters of yellow, blue, and orange tents.
When I visited, the scene first seemed like an ordinary spring afternoon: Groups of women sat together under a pavilion sharing stories and eating boiled potato snacks as monks in deep red robes waded slowly through swaying grass. Two young girls carried stacks of plastic cups into which they tipped tea to anyone who showed a glint of interest. However, a closer look betrayed the pleasantries. Many among the crowd had bandages on their heads or feet, and one woman sat alone, staring somberly into space. At the edge of the field, a sign read, “Langtang Disaster Relief Fund.”
Over the past two weeks, the camp has transformed from tens of individuals to a veritable village with more than 250 people. Because conditions in Langtang Valley remain extremely hazardous — continued landslides and avalanches have severely limited search and rescue operations — evacuations for all those remaining in the area are ongoing.
And yet, despite the tragedies of the past few weeks, the camp has an undeniable vibrancy to it. Pervasive among the residents is the determination to rebuild their valley.
“Langtang was like heaven for us,” Tamang said. “Everything that we have in this world is because of that place.”
Although aid organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children as well as independent ventures, are carrying out relief work across Nepal, earthquake survivors from Langtang Valley are unwilling to wait for government and international money to reconstruct their homes. They’ve started their own donation fund, hoping that any little bit of money they raise might make a difference.
Tamang has thrown himself completely into collecting donations. He has reached out to guides, local associations, and friends in other parts of the country. In the past week, he has collected about $1,200.
“We plan to split the money between our immediate needs in the camp and our long term goals,” he said.
Just north of Kathmandu, Langtang Valley was a popular trekking destination. However, it’s fate is in question since it was one of the areas of Nepal most severely affected by the recent earthquakes.
The trembling earth triggered part of a massive hanging glacier in the mountains above the valley to become unhinged and smash into a part of the mountain, according to glaciologist Dorothea Stumm of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. The pulverized ice formed a large cloud that gathered snow and rocks and dirt, which then funneled down the mountain and buried villages below.
In Langtang Village, the cloud also created a massive pressurized blast that flattened trees and blew some houses away from their foundation. Local authorities currently estimate that as many as 120 people were killed in Langtang Village alone, with many deaths likely a result of the blast.
At the same time, scientists like Stumm worry about the possible risks of resettlement in Langtang Valley.
“People will have to be careful to take into account the potential hazards,” Stumm, who is familiar with similar environments in her native Switzerland, said.
She added that the earthquake likely loosened masses of permafrost, which frequently holds rocks, soil, and other materials together in the mountains above the valley. This means that landslides like what followed the recent earthquake could become more frequent. High-resolution imagery that is able to produce a potential hazard map of the valley will be integral in aiding the reconstruction process. It also means that besides properly engineering buildings for another severe earthquake, communities may also have to move to another part of the valley altogether, to a place that is less likely to be prone to hazards.
The process of rebuilding, though, possesses its own challenges. The steel reinforcements that aid in building strong structures are not only expensive, but must be physically carried up the steep mountain trails. Moreover, new building locations could be strongly influenced by community ties to ancestral lands or economic incentives such as tourism, disregarding potential risks. While many Langtang survivors want to return home, the lack of tourism in the area in the coming months and possibly years may force many to migrate permanently to Kathmandu.
Ngawang Dorjee Tamang knows there are challenges ahead, but seems to be ready for them.
“A lot of my classmates don’t want to return to school after this, but I do. I think of my dad, and his memory makes me want to finish my education.”
He sat in the field and toyed with the grass as the sun began to disappear behind Kathmandu’s hills when the rapping sound of flip-flops approached behind him. A friend of Tamang’s leaned over and whispered something into his ear.
“Sorry,” Tamang said. “They need me at the donations table.”
He got up and jogged away.