The Day the Earth Caved In
It was two o’clock on a hot afternoon. I was working on a routine assignment in Noida, at the outskirts of New Delhi, when I suddenly felt the earth shake. It was a pretty jarring earthquake, felt strongly all across north India. Soon after, I was informed that its epicenter was in Nepal. It was the second deadly earthquake after the first one, of 7.8 magnitude, that had devastated the country on April 25, 2015. Half an hour later, I got a call from the National photo-editor of Hindustan Times, Gurinder Osan, asking me if I was ready to travel to Nepal for the second time in the same week. (I had recently returned after an unofficial trip to cover the aftermath of the first earthquake.)
I reached Delhi airport just in time to board the 5:30 PM flight to Kathmandu, which was delayed for more than an hour due to heavy air traffic of aid planes and rescue helicopters at Kathmandu airport. By the time I reached Kathmandu, it was around 8 pm. I checked into a small hotel near the airport and left immediately to visit the local hospital. I tried to get some coverage of the emergency ward of BIR hospital, but the emergency staff stopped me as the hospital management had been instructed not to allow any Indian media inside the emergency or any ward.
The next day, one day after the earthquake, I decided early morning to go to Dolakha, the epicenter, which was almost 130 km from Kathmandu. I confirmed the routes and transportation from the hotel management. They suggested that I could either travel by taxi both ways, which would cost me twenty thousand Nepali rupees, or I could travel in a passenger bus, which in a routine schedule would leave at 7 am for Dolakha. I decided to take the latter option and the hotel management guided me towards the bus stop. I left the hotel at 6:30 am, but given the shocking state of devastation all around me, I was late and couldn’t find any seats, finally clambering to its rooftop along with other passengers.
On the way to Dolakha, I saw colossal devastation from both the first and the second earthquakes. Ninety per cent of the houses were lying in rubble, and people who had escaped and were lucky to be alive, were sleeping on roads with whatever belongings they could save. Some had built makeshift huts while waiting for relief materials. It was a surreal sight but it almost seemed as if people had accepted nature’s fury and were strikingly resilient in their daily goings-on.
At many points in the journey, our bus had a narrow escape on the landslide-hit roads. After the quakes, huge chunks of rocks had fallen from mountains and were lying in the middle of the roads blocking access to either side. From time to time, we saw people clearing the roads. I kept shooting photographs from the rooftop of the bus. We passed many remote villages that had been almost totally wiped out. No rescue team had been to these areas. There was not a human or animal in sight; just wreckage everywhere. Often, I wondered, where I had come and the meaning of things around me.
Finally, after a five-hour-long journey on the bus’ rooftop, I managed to reach Dolakha in the afternoon around 12:45 pm. Before leaving the bus, I learned that the only other bus from Dolakha back to Kathmandu would leave at 2, so I had to make the best use of my time before returning. I started shooting pictures of the devastation at the epicenter and reached a place where a rescue team was searching for bodies inside the rubble of collapsed houses. The sense of danger, as if, had left me, and I moved about almost in a daze, covering the condition of people and their belongings, now almost reduced to mere dust.
I also learned that the same day, an American rescue helicopter had crashed in the mountains during a rescue operation. I went to many other locations in Dolakha to capture nature’s acute wrath. I managed to photograph several medical treatment tents and found injured people, mostly children and older people. In the meantime, I was getting worried about my return bus to Kathmandu, and unfortunately, couldn’t reach it on time. I started getting extremely anxious, wondering what to do, as there were no operational hotels left after the earthquakes. At the back of my mind, I also wanted to make sure that I filed my photographs to the Delhi office. By then, it was 3 pm and I was losing hope of reaching Kathmandu the same day.
I found an Indian Army medical tent nearby and asked them for help. They guided me to the Nepal Army. After some wait, I spotted a Nepal army vehicle and requested the commander for help. He took me on his vehicle to the army base where I could see several choppers taking off with emergency aid material. There was a lot of commotion outside the base; I approached the army personnel at the entry gate and narrated my situation and that I needed to go back to Kathmandu. He gave me permission to enter the base and asked me to talk to the Lieutenant. After a short while, the Lieutenant assured me that I would be able to return to Kathmandu via the India Air Force helicopter as soon as it arrived, since it was the only chopper which could go to Kathmandu airport from Dolakha army base.
When the IAF chopper finally arrived, I introduced myself to the captain, but he refused to take me on board. He rightly pointed out that there were many injured people to be flown to Kathmandu. I did explain to him that I had no option but to go back to Kathmandu. To my relief, he eventually agreed. I boarded the IAF chopper, which was already carrying some fifteen seriously injured people to Kathmandu for emergency treatment. It was around four o’clock in the evening. That long five-hour bus trip translated to thirty minutes of flying in the helicopter. During the short ride, I continued to click photographs of the aerial view of the remote villages destroyed in the earthquakes. No words can convey the magnitude of devastation I saw there. The skies above looked down upon miles and miles of annihilation of Nepal’s once-stunning locales and generations of its people.
As soon as the chopper arrived at the airport, a large number of Nepali army personnel and other rescue teams were waiting to treat and help the injured. Medical treatment was being provided inside the airport for the severely injured. The whole relief effort was a massively coordinated systematic operation in the midst of agony and unreal devastation through a series of aftershocks that continued days after the earthquakes.
I landed at Kathmandu airport at 4:30 pm, and heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the heavens for the immense stroke of luck. I stayed on in Nepal for six days during my second coverage of the quake-hit region. Till this day, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, shuddering with the trauma of aftershocks that I faced there, about which we had been warned that we should be prepared to flee the area. At other times, I am haunted and reminded of the eerie silence of the villages in Dolakha and a world turned to dust by one swipe of nature.