Nepal earthquake: Girls scarred by tragedy share friendship, but not luck
The Nepal earthquake brought the two girls together, putting them in the same ward at Kathmandu's Bir Hospital. Both were seven years old at the time.
Kathmandu: Nirmala pouts when her father fits the prosthetic leg onto her stump and wraps the long straps around her waist. He whispers quiet encouragement in her ear as she grumbles. Finally, she limps around the Kathmandu sweatshop that is now her home.
As soon as she can she takes off the plastic leg, dancing on one foot through the little textile factory, including the makeshift room where her family lives.
Nirmala lives a few minutes from where a neighbour's apartment collapsed around her in last year's earthquake, crushing her right leg and requiring it to be amputated inches below her waist. The barely-contained bundle of eight-year-old exuberance dreams of being a doctor, or maybe a famous actress. Yet she still has not returned to school, and her exhausted father has no way to get her back.
Her best friend, Khendo, lives on the other side of town, crowded into her aunt's small apartment. Khendo lost her left leg in the quake, but she doesn't mind her prosthesis. She moves easily with a pair of crutches, looks forward to class and loves eating the dried sweet berries called kafal while she's waiting for the school bus.
The earthquake brought the two girls together, putting them in the same ward at Kathmandu's Bir Hospital. Both were seven years old at the time. Both are very close to their fathers, poor men who can barely write their own names. Both owe their lives to strangers.
At first, the girls spoke no common language — Nirmala speaks only Nepali, this country's main language, and Khendo initially could converse only in Tamang, the language of a Buddhist minority — but their friendship was immediate and absolute. They whispered secrets, learned to walk again and often fell asleep in the same bed.
They are two little girls, unbroken by their lost limbs, whose resilience is matched only by their excitement at the world around them.
Their futures, though, appear headed in very different directions. Khendo had a stroke of luck that could change her life: A foreign traveller who stumbled across her when she was badly injured is now paying to send her to a private school in Kathmandu. Nirmala did not.
"She's a strong kid," said Chitra Bahadur Nepali, Nirmala's father, a perpetually exhausted man who earns less than $3 a day sewing the loose-fitting hippyish clothes so popular here among Western travellers. "But she's not going to school ... It's been almost a year now since she's been in class."
He scoffed when asked if he thought help would come from the government — to rebuild his village home, or help educate his daughter.
"Forget about it," he said, shaking his head.
That is how most of this country has felt since the massive 7.8-magnitude 25 April earthquake left nearly 9,000 people dead, more than 22,000 injured and over 600,000 homes destroyed. So little has been rebuilt, so few lives have been repaired.
The government spent most of the past year wrangling over the country's constitution, a debate that sparked ethnic turmoil in Nepal's plains, a diplomatic spat with New Delhi and, for more many months, a blocked border with India that reduced fuel supplies to a trickle.
Only in the past few weeks has official attention turned squarely toward the earthquake.
"The reconstruction work following the earthquake has not progressed at the speed we expected," Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli acknowledged in a recent speech. "The question for us is how to move ahead now."
The lack of speed is easy to see.
Visit the neighbourhood around Kathmandu's Gangabu bus terminal, where about 140 people were killed and more than 200 buildings were damaged or destroyed. So far, just a handful of small structures have been rebuilt. Or go to the back lanes of Bhaktapur, an ancient city just outside Kathmandu, where entire rows of houses remain nothing but piles of rubble.
Visit the villages of Sindhupalchowk, the sprawling mountainous district where house after house after house was destroyed. Eleven months later, the wreckage is neatly piled up — old stones in one area, wooden beams in another. The dirt has been swept away, and sheds have been built out of corrugated metal sheets distributed after the quake. Those sheds have been home to thousands of people for the past year.
In many villages, not a single permanent house has been rebuilt.
Officials have warned villagers that vague new regulations forbid rebuilding their houses using traditional construction methods — basically using stacked rocks, mud and a handful of wooden beams. Small modern houses, with concrete pillars reinforced with steel rods, can cost $10,000, a fortune in these villages and far beyond the help the government has promised.
"It is a glaring indictment of the state, that it gives citizens no reason to expect much from their elected representatives," the Nepali Times newspaper said in a recent editorial, summing up how so many people in Nepal feel.
So far, only 661 families whose homes were destroyed received any reconstruction money. They have been paid 50,000 rupees, the first installment of the promised 200,000 rupees — about $1,900 — promised by the government. In his speech, Oli said widespread distribution of the funds would begin late April.
Nirmala's father, Nepali, wonders if he'll get anything.
He moved to Kathmandu seven years ago to make extra money, leaving his wife and children on the family farm in eastern Nepal. Unfortunately, Nirmala had been visiting him last April. When the quake hit that Saturday, he was out running errands and she was at a neighbour's watching television.
He started running home even as the city was still shaking. By then, though, Nirmala was gone, a bleeding rag doll picked up by a stranger and carried to a nearby clinic, which sent her to Kathmandu's main trauma ward at Bir Hospital.
The stranger came back to the wreckage, looking for Nirmala's family.
"He told me: 'I don't know if she's alive or dead, but you have to come quick,'" said Nepali, who rode to the hospital on the back of the man's motorcycle. He never found out his name.
That day began for Khendo in a village called Banskharka, four hours by bad roads from Kathmandu, where she lived with her parents and 13-year-old sister. It's a beautiful spot, high above a series of narrow river valleys, with terraced fields where farmers have grown buckwheat and vegetables for generations. Khendo, with her sister and grandmother, had walked to a neighbour's house that morning, squeezing inside where dozens of people were talking about ways to lessen the village's poverty. Minutes later, everything began to shake.
The area was devastated. More than 100 houses collapsed, including the home where Khendo had gone to watch the meeting. Her father, a gentle 41-year-old named Mangale Dong Tamang, dug through the wreckage for three hours until he found her. She was crying frantically, her leg nearly severed.
That was only the beginning. There was no ambulance to call, and the narrow mountain roads leading to the village were blocked in dozens of places by landslides.
Tamang also spent hours trying to find his mother and his other daughter, 13-year-old Dolma. In the end, he found only their bodies.
Finally, the family sought safety from aftershocks in an open field, and waited for the helicopter they were sure would come quickly.
Four days later, they were still waiting, increasingly sure Khendo would not survive.
That was when a traveller, a Westerner studying Buddhism in Nepal, arrived in the village to help. The man — they still don't know his full name — told them about an evacuation site perhaps 15 kilometers (10 miles) away. So Tamang picked up Khendo and began walking, sometimes hacking his way through brush with a machete-like knife. Six hours later, they arrived at a makeshift helipad. A few hours after that, Khendo was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to Kathmandu, to the same hospital where Nirmala had arrived a few days earlier.
The first days were terrible.
"'I'm in pain! I'm in pain!' That was all she would say," said Tamang.
For Nirmala, those initial weeks were a blur of confusion. "'Where's my leg?' she kept asking," said her father. "All I could do was say: 'It will be fine. It will be fine.'"
The next three months were often difficult for both girls. There were surgeries to clean their wounds, therapy to get them moving again and prostheses, built with the help of the aid group Handicap International, to be fitted.
But Nirmala's normally relentless cheeriness eventually re-emerged, and one day she found Khendo in another part of the hospital ward. Khendo was still badly depressed, crying and barely talking. Friendship, though, began pulling Khendo out of her despair, and soon the two girls were inseparable.
"They were such friends," said Tamang. "Whenever Nirmala went to the toilet, she went too .... If I bought something for Khendo, I'd also have to buy something for Nirmala."
It's been more than eight months since the girls were discharged from the hospital. Neither talks much about the earthquake anymore, their families say, or about the loss of their legs.
They also don't see one another very often, with Khendo in class on most days — that same traveller is paying all of her school fees, about $1,300 a year — and both families struggling just to keep afloat.
Nirmala's parents are desperate to find financial support to put her in school. But held back by their own illiteracy, they have no idea where to turn. All they know is she can no longer navigate the village paths to the school there, and only a private school would have the dormitory facilities so she could stay in the capital. That means tuition bills they simply cannot afford.
"I don't think my daughter will ever lose hope," said Nepali, Nirmala's father. "But she should be in school."
Khendo's family, meanwhile, is hoping to move back to their village soon. She will remain in Kathmandu, living in the school dormitory.
Her parents will return to a makeshift windowless hillside hut, built on the foundations of what had been the family home.
After Khendo's grandmother and her older sister were cremated, their ashes were buried a few dozen feet away from the hut, and small stone monuments were built by hand to mark the spots. Next to them, bamboo poles hold Buddhist prayer flags that flap in the winds that never seem to stop blowing here.
As the wind blows through the cracks in the bamboo, it often causes a gentle whistling.
Sometimes, it almost sounds like singing.
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Earthquakes are quite rare in Australia's populated southeast. Notably, this earthquake was the biggest one to strike Australia since a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck closer to the northwest coastal town of Broome in 2019.