Monday, June 11, 2012

Aurahi rising slowly from the ashes

Pictures and Story By Manju Rana
These are the images I took when I visited Aurahi last week, when daytime temperatures were hovering in the mid-40s. I saw work going on nearly a war footing to build temporary toilets in the village, the distribution of relief supplies, and also observed how the men and women (and in some cases animals too) in Aurahi were trying to get back to normalcy. It is difficult though. 

First the process of building toilets.Ultimately 80 common toilets will be constructed  in the fire ravaged areas. When i was in Aurahi the sample toilet was nearing completion, and was told that  by 13th June first 10 latrines would be completed.
As I went around I saw all the activities going on for building these toilets.  In one corner of the village, workers were busy making concrete rings for the toilet/latrine pit. These are the dyes to cast concrete to make the rings.

These are rings that already out of the cast and drying in the sun.

This is a double pit latrine, where the pan has already been set. This toilet / latrine is going to be built as the sample for all the villagers to see, and is located very close to the distribution site for relief materials.
 Experts, including UNICEF WASH Specialist  Madhav Pahari (in white cap) inspect the latrine
Nearby there was an old man who was using his skills to make the bamboo walls for the temporary toilets.
 He was slicing the bamboo into thin slats for the walls  
 The walls go up

The pits are then covered by concrete slabs and pipes also fitted
The bamboo is then covered by black polethene sheeting. This is the door
The sample latrine is now complete.  I was told that the other toilets in the village will be raised even more, in view of possible flooding during monsoon, which is right around the corner
During our stay there the consignment of buckets arrived.
These buckets are being distributed so that people can use it to store and purify water, amongst other things. They were distributed following verification of their ID/ration cards
While we were there UNICEF team members including the Deputy Representative and the Chief of the Eastern Region Field Office came to Aurahi to take stock of the relief efforts.  Here they are interacting with the Relief Distribution Community members
As I walked around the village I could still signs of how devastating the fire was.  Below is a pile of assets turned to ashes   
It was not just houses that were burnt.. even vegetation was not spared.  A local told me that it took less than 50 minutes to turn a thriving village to smoking ruins
Although there were no human casualties in the fire, I saw several livestock with severe burns.

 Most of the villagers are trying to make the best of out of the relief materials they have been provided. Blue tarpaulins can be seen everywhere
Meanwhile temporary shelter (huts) with tin roofing have also started being built with the support from the various agencies including technical support from Habitat for Humanity.  At least that will keep them safe from rain as well as future fires
And life goes on.   Amna Khatun delivered a baby boy three days earlier at the birthing centre.  Since her house was also burnt down, she is now living with her husband’s  relatives.
Nearby there are mango groves that escaped the fire.. nearing harvest time 

 And very close to it, this Laburnum tree in full bloom.. full of a promises of a brighter future.  
 Manju is Senior Communication Assistant in UNICEF Nepal.
She can be reached at

Once dry, the 'thirsty' rings needed to be ‘watered’ frequently to make them stronger

Friday, June 1, 2012

What I saw and felt in fire-ravaged Aurahi village

Pictures and Story By Arinita Maskey Shrestha
I reached Aurahi Village Development Committee (VDC) in Siraha three days after the fire of 15 May 2012 had wiped out the settlements in three wards of the VDC. It was sweltering hot. The hot May sun beat down upon a village where along with the adobe mud homes, all trees had also been consumed by the fire.  Nothing was left to provide shade, other than the blue tarpaulins distributed by relief agencies.

There was destruction and piles of ash and debris everywhere.  The wind that had fanned the 15th May fire still blew strongly, kicking up the ash and dust.
The fire had destroyed everything that people owned, their savings, their valuables, their equipment, their clothes, their books, their food.  The only clothes they had were the ones on their back.
Many children and babies, mainly due to the heat, did not even have any clothes at all.
I could see people trying to salvage whatever they could of their burnt up homes… sifting through the ashes, for any melted metal, or recovering whatever grain survived in the bhakaris.
When our vehicle neared an open space near the village, there were two big trucks on the side, and a large group of people in the centre.

The trucks were laden
with relief items like sacks of rice, chiura (beaten rice), bhujiya (gram flour savoury)etc. that were being off loaded for distribution.  Food.. that was why they were milling about so eagerly.  Some of them waiting in a nearby shelter away from the 42 degree heat.
The police were helping in crowd control and distribution along with volunteers from the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS). There was a cluster of people talking in loud voice, almost like arguing.  It seems they were trying to ascertain the exact number of households that had been affected.
At least they have something to eat, I thought as I moved along with our assessment team that comprised of colleagues from UNICEF Biratnagar office as well as from Save the Children and the District Public Health Office
Walking through the debris was like walking through a ghost town. Charred pillars that once had held together entire houses now stood like black fingers spreading skywards all around me.

 The gateway pillars to nowhere…
… and an odd bed…
What survived the fire from one clump of debris to the next were items made of concrete, be it the plastered tube well ramps, feeding trough for animals, or structures made with cement and bricks.

Other survivors were metallic.. like this hay splicer
Or this cycle, sans rubber tyres or leather seat, of course..
And strangely, if though they were not made of concrete, the bhakaris (granary) were intact in nearly all the burnt homes.
In some places I could see baskets of grains that people had managed to salvage from these bhakaris made largely of mud and cane using age-old tradition.  I wondered if the same indigenous technology could be adapted in the construction of the walls as well as the roofing of these homes, so much loss of property could be averted in such fires.

People had set up their temporary shelters as close as possible to their damaged homes. They tried to maintain privacy, especially for the women by setting up saree-screens. The new looking sarees had probably been brought for them by relatives who seemed to be visiting Aurahi in hordes.
I wondered how the large joint families, some with more than two dozen family members managed to take shelter under one tarpaulin, with the sun beating down on them.
As I walked with my team mates through Aurahi, we came to a temple, next to a large pond that was the only source of water for the villagers for their cleaning, washing needs.

The temple premise was being used as a temporary health camp.  Surprisingly, the temple and the trees surrounding had been spared from the all-consuming fire. The locals called it the hand of God. 
Among the hundreds of patients being examined by the health staff working around the clock, there were many cases of heat stroke and dehydration.  I saw a couple of women lying on the floor being administered saline drip.  One of the women was dumb with shock, and having bouts of fainting spells, after she lost all her belongings, including her jewellery from her recent marriage, in the fire.  
 The health workers said that most of ailments that they were treating were eye infections, dehydration and heat stroke, diarrhoea and skin problems.
Also next to the temple we saw locals with big hearts offering wet feeding.
Hot food was simmering in large pots nearby, and being served by volunteers to people, young and old seated in a row in the temple yard.

A Health Worker Kasindra Yadav, was the one who was offering free food for the victims.

The Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) of the affected wards had also lost their homes, but were providing their services nevertheless to the needy.  Another woman I talked to (video clip below) narrated the travails she had gone through in recent years.  Her husband had been killed in the conflict and she had struggled to make a living to feed her children, one of whom currently had his hand in a cast.
Talking about the fire that now took away everything she owned, she said, she was sleeping in the afternoon, and when her son told here that there were houses burning in the neighbourhood, she went to see how she could help them.. not realising that the fast spreading fire would soon engulf her own home from where she was not able to take out anything. When I questioned the women about where they went to defecate, they just thrust their chins in the direction of the shrubs. 
Disaster provides an opportunity in this case to build people’s behaviours and habits of not defecating in the open.  UNICEF is in the process now of building community toilets as an immediate relief effort in Aurahi. (The video shakes bit as i as I try to pan across the burnt surroundings)
That evening as I lay under a mosquito net in the hotel room, and patted away a few mosquitos, I thought about the families I had met.  What might they be doing now?  Were their mothers desperately trying to swat away the mosquitoes hovering over their bare-backed infants?
Relief agencies are trying desperately to bring some semblance of normalcy back into their lives regarding food, shelter and basic amenities.  The resilient village people themselves are toiling day and night to get back to normalcy.  Here they are applying a layer of mud flooring for a temporary shelter.
And yet monsoon is just around the corner, and Aurahi is vulnerable to floods too...

 Arinita is an Emergency WASH Specialist in UNICEF Nepal.
She can be reached at