Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I will never regret my choice

A blog post by Indira Koirala, UNICEF Nepal Programme and Planning Officer, as told to Mariana Palavra 

UNICEF Nepal Programme and Planning Officer Indira Koirala speaks with an earthquake-affected family who recently received UNICEF-provided aid supplies, distributed by partner organization Plan, in Dolakha District, Nepal on May 26 2015. © UNICEF Nepal/2015/BSokol

On April 25, when the 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, I had just stepped down from a domestic flight at Kathmandu Airport along with five other UNICEF colleagues. As I was calling UNDSS to inform them that we had arrived from our field mission, I didn’t understand what was going on until someone screamed ‘earthquake’, and two passengers fell from the plane’s ladder. When I looked at the runway, I could clearly see the wavy movement of the earth.

While others were trying to call their family, my first instinct was to report to the UNICEF warden system that I was safe and sound. For half an hour, all 72 passengers held on to each other, more so when we felt an aftershock.
An hour later I was out at the airport’s parking lot. Everyone else had rushed to go home and find their family’s whereabouts. I was left alone. I am single, I live alone and I don’t have any family. Fortunately, amidst the chaos, a taxi driver saw I was ‘lost’ and agreed to take me home.

For some strange reason, I don’t get very scared by earthquakes. So, as soon as I arrived home, I went to my third floor apartment and made myself a cup of tea and started to watch TV. A couple hours later, my neighbours urged me to get out of the house for security reasons. I guess I was a bit lost.

The first two nights I slept outside but I would go up to the apartment to cook and have my tea. Two days after the earthquake, I felt strong enough to walk one hour to the UNICEF office. It was such a great relief, I felt I was among a supportive family. I regretted that I hadn’t gone to work sooner. I just wanted to stay at the office and work more and more.

On 9 May, I volunteered to be a district emergency coordinator and two days later I left for Dolakha district, east of Kathmandu. En route our vehicle was badly hit by another vehicle. As a result my journey to Dolakha had to be postponed by a day. The next day, on May 12, we arrived in Charikot, the district headquarters of Dolakha, our final destination. Around 1 pm, we were following another UNICEF car with two colleagues with whom I was going to attend a Child Protection sub cluster meeting. We were driving down a narrow dusty road when suddenly the earth started shaking - we were experiencing a second earthquake - a 7.3. Our driver had to struggle to stop the car that seemed to veer toward the cliff side of the road. In this panic-stricken moment, I saw in front of us a stone house collapsing over the road. I was almost sure it had hit the other UNICEF car that was ahead of us. Similarly, I later learnt that our colleagues in the car had feared the same fate for us. It wasn’t until some hours later that we found out that none of us was hurt or had been directly caught by the earthquake.

I spent those first hours in a camp with families already displaced by the first earthquake. I looked around me and I saw families in extremely difficult living conditions, I saw some children with disability living without shelter. My mind was occupied with these sad thoughts when I saw an 11-year-old child who did not seem to be scared. ‘If this child living in these conditions is not afraid, why am I panicking?’ I thought.

The landscape after the second earthquake - whose epicentre was only 15 kilometres away from Charikot - was devastating. The hills all around were scarred with landslides, and homes had been turned to rubble. However, not for a second did I regret having volunteered for this position. Both after the car accident and the second earthquake, I was asked by my colleagues if I wanted to go back to Kathmandu. Both times I said no. I was not injured, I was not dead, so I had no reason to go back. Maybe the fact that I am not so scared of earthquakes and I often stay calm explains why I made this choice. In fact, despite the giant challenges, I have enjoyed working here. I suppose being extremely busy has helped me to keep going until now. 

My mission in Dolakha is about to finish and I have to go back to my post in Kathmandu. In fact, while all my colleagues, the other 11 district emergency coordinators were already back in Kathmandu. I stayed on behind as I had tons of work to do. I will stay here until the last possible minute. It’s a kind of responsibility. I will never regret my choice.  

NOTE: Indira resumed her regular duties in UNICEF Nepal Country Office in Kathmandu on 28 May 2015.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

... and this is just one of the schools...

These are pictures from 29th May, two days before the government's declared date for children in the earthquake impacted districts to go Back to School.  The twin quakes -- the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 25th April 2015 and the 7.3 magnitude aftershock of 12th May-- turned many schools into rubble.  Most schools in the rural areas of the country, including the  Shree Siddhi Kamaladevi Secondary School of Pipaldanda in Sindhupalchowk were constructed with mud and mortar.  Most of these came down with the first quake.  In Sindhupalchowk district alone only 34 of the 4962 classrooms in 691  schools (of them 34  private)  were deemed to be free of damage.  A total of 2746 were said to be fully damaged and 1273 had major damage.
The school is built on a circular plot of land beneath a huge pipal tree. The blue tarp see to the left corner is where the Child Friendly Centre (CFS) had been set up
 Slogan painted on the outer wall of the school building talks about the need to keep the earth clean by building toilets in every home. Sindhupalchowk was on the verge of declaring itself free of open defecation, until the earthquake played havoc and knocked down most of the toilets that had been built across the district.
 Compared to some other schools in other areas, at least this school still had its roof and main structure standing
 Temporary toilets set up in the school premises for use by children coming to the Child Friendly Space
This part of the school that seems to be have been built later with concrete pillar was more intact. Yet some parts of this wall painted with pictures of imminent personalities collapsed ...
 A lone harmonium stands in the middle of a room that must have been a arts and craft room
 Another building added at another time has metal truss that seem to have withstood the jolts of the quake, yet the partition walls and outer walls caved in
 Further down the same block
 Looking across the yard. The newly built and yet damaged District Hospital of Charikot (white buildings) can be seen in the backdrop
 In front of the southern damaged blocks can be seen logs and branches brought in by locals to build a Temporary Learning Centre
 One can imagine if it was not a  Saturday, and thus a school holiday,  what would have happened to children either sitting on those benches, crammed shoulder to shoulder. Or what would have happened to them even if they found time, to duck cover or hold under the benches
 Southern end of the eastern block
 Students said that this used to be a multimedia room.  The cushions were placed on the carpeted floor for students to watch educational videos
 A lone slide in the middle of the yard
 Remains of the science  / resource room with maps strewn all over
the windows hang dramatically like buntings across a 'rubbled' classrooms 
 The length of the eastern block.. from inside...
... and outside.  80- percent of the houses in the district were damaged.  Every turn on the dirt road we took brought us to areas that had been leveled by the temblor. In the background in the hills once can see the white tents where people of that damaged settlement are taking shelter in
 Cracked remains of a blackboard
 The meeting hall
 Damaged artwork
 Half broken promise of respecting children rights in the new Constitution
 The eastern block from the outside.
... And this is just one of the nearly 600 damaged schools in Sindhupalchowk district alone. Across the 14 districts that took the worst brunt of the earthquake, over 32,000 classrooms were totally damaged, posing a big challenge for the early resumption of school.
write up and photos by Rupa Joshi