I had the honor of interviewing Youba Raj Pokhael, a survivor of the 2015 Earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Here is his story.
I live in Afghanistan, but everything that I love resides in Nepal. I count down the days until I can go back. The circumstances which brought me here are unfortunate, yet I am one of the lucky ones. I have a job, I am a Passenger Service Representative in an Airfield. I have a beautiful family, and I was given a second chance. With the grace of God, I will shortly be delivered to Kathmandu. To my home. I will begin my story on the day the earth shook. The day where everything changed. It was a Saturday.
Silence hung heavily in the air, interrupted only by boisterous panting. I was in City Mission Church when I felt the jolt of the ground beneath me. I jerked upright at attention, squeezing the railings of my chair and pushing my feet through my shoes into the dense concrete floor. Silence… followed by an ear-splitting rumble. The building convulsed as though it was having a seizure. The walls reverberated, ebbing and flowing with the trembling earth. “EARTHQUAKE!” Everyone sang in tune as though it was an eerie gospel. The screams rang louder and more frantic than the deafening thunder of the grand, crumbling structures which surrounded us. “Get under your chairs. Don’t leave the building”. The pastor remained calm and collected though he could barely stand, we, the congregation gulped down his orders like a bitter red wine.
I’m huddled under a table trying to maintain some kind of equilibrium but the building is a seesaw and we’re being thrown around like dice. Seconds feel like minutes. I can’t think. Fear envelops my body and makes space for nothing else. In times of turmoil, we are reduced to our primary instincts. I cling to the ground as if it was a lost love. Everything around me is crumbling, splintering, shattering. I muster my energy and in a burst, I am out the door. Flight; my last impulse towards survival. It was God who gave me strength, though I am not the only one. Many of us crowd outside of the building. Although we are all connected in this moment, I’ve never felt so alone. I hold onto my quivering knees and catch my breath. In my peripheries, I see something worse than a horror film. I don’t look up.
Everything is falling. Everyone is screaming. We are dying. I squeeze my head in an effort to keep it from falling apart. It is thudding and feels as though it will detonate like the buildings around me. There are thick clouds of dust which aggravate my eyes. I can’t yet see the damage but the shrill cries and the thundering of fracturing buildings, fracturing bones ring through my ears.
Within two minutes our city has fallen like stacked cards. It is an inferno. Injured people are being hauled to a phantasmal safety, somewhere away from the domino of buildings, the hell-fire, and the noise. I see the life leave their eyes, their limbs droop. Crowds shoot their way through congested roads for the chance at a hospital chair or even a floor space. Lifeless bodies choke the bustling quarters. I haul bodies, into the ambulance but am distracted by one nagging question. With no cell phone coverage, I am left to speculate on my family’s safely. I need to get home. With no other way, I force my legs to march. One after the other. Robotic. Like a soldier.
I remember every step of the 15-mile walk home. Every second of worry and despair that my family, those that I hold most dear would be only memories. Every step I spent trying to call my family and at every stride saw only more death and destruction foreboding my return.
There are multiple aftershocks which invigorate new fear and distress. People are fleeing their homes for open land but I keep going. The buildings tilt eerily to one side as though it would take only a mere push to turn them into rubble. Aamosh is an ambulance driver. He was on duty when the Earth began to move. “The vehicle began to shake, violently”. His voice tremors, he is visibly shaken. “I was barely able to get my head out of the window when a tree fell on top of the ambulance”. “Had I not rushed out of the ambulance immediately, I would have been crushed to death.” He took a moment, frozen, stuck in time. “People were pinned to the ground.” “A vegetable seller lay trapped in a space nearby. Two others had rubble piled on their legs.” He holds his breath for a moment. His eyes, once a polished mahogany are a dense charcoal. “I just ran away for safety and left them to die”. “I know my conscience will not let me live.”
My parents and wife dig through the rubble that was our house. Everything is gone. I feel conflicted between bliss at my family’s safety and devastation at the loss of our house. I thank God to protected us. But everything we had, now lies fragmented under shattered walls. At this moment I’m totally blind to the future. I think of only how we can rebuild and what we can find to eat. The neighbors whose houses remain upright are too scared to sleep there. We stay in a tent. I I tossed and turned the first night. Falling houses and dying people are burnt into my mind my dreams are still not as bad as real life.
Over the following days, there are more aftershocks. More houses fall. More people die. We wait for aid. It feels as though everyone has turned their back on us, including our government. There is political turmoil. The government squabbles over the allocation of resources. Eventually, we receive rice and an assortment of dry food from aid organizations. We are lucky, some of the victims still have no house or tent. Everywhere is crowded. We do everything we can, but it’s still not enough. Months pass. Years pass.
I am in Afghanistan earning money and supporting my family from afar. They now have a house. I am saving to build a second one. I think back to that Saturday afternoon and the Saturday’s that followed. Our city in turmoil. No help. No hope. I shudder. God has once again blessed me and my family, this time with a baby girl, Jesika. Although she remains on the other side of the world, she motivates me to earn, to save, to return. It is three months until I return to my Katmandu, three months and counting.