Catastrophe in Nepal

From the founder of Tevel b’Tzedek, a first-person account of the relief effort after an earthquake devastated the South Asian country, and what more is left to do.

An earthquake survivor runs past collapsed houses on the outskirts of Kathmandu, May 5. (photo credit: REUTERS/ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA)
An earthquake survivor runs past collapsed houses on the outskirts of Kathmandu, May 5.
KATHMANDU – Even before the earthquake, Nepal often teetered on the edge of chaos: A 10 year Maoist civil war ended in 2006 with the venal Royal Family ousted from the palace, but no powerful leader had filled the void. General strikes often paralyzed the country, the constitution remained unwritten, and most importantly, the thousands of remote villages that dotted the hills and mountains lacked access to health and education services, and mostly could not grow enough food to feed the population.
My organization, Tevel b’Tzedek, founded to connect Israel and Jews to the challenge of extreme poverty in the developing world, had come to Nepal eight years before and had never left; although we have expanded to Haiti and then to Burundi since then. During our first two years, we had placed our Israeli and Jewish volunteers as interns in local organizations; we quickly began to realize that the crisis of rural villages was the great producer of poverty in Nepal.
Since we began working, we have been the only Israeli or Jewish development organization in Nepal. Last week, I arrived in Kathmandu confronted with the full force of the destruction from the earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of village homes in rubble, and with a window of a few weeks until the monsoon rains, time was of the essence.
As the more than 50 members of our Nepali staff and our Nepali volunteers came to our main center of operations from their family homes in the city or villages, they were still in a state of shock, bleary and teary eyed. Our Israeli and Jewish volunteers and staff – reaching almost 50 in number as well – were also reeling. Everyone was trying to cope with what had happened to their homes and country, and what they had experienced.
That very thing we think of as our rock of stability had gone from grounded to ground zero with no warning, it had trembled and shaken with force from a dimension beyond human imagination. It was a show that everything we all hold dear could be taken from us suddenly. By shifting plates of stone, a drama playing out whose plot unravels in a time frame that makes the length of human lives seem minuscule, but also in terrifying seconds in which everything turns upside down.
Some of the Nepali staff had lost more than others – houses had crumbled, relatives were dead. But everyone was sleeping outside, in tents or under plastic tarps, as were our Israeli staff and Jewish and Israeli volunteers, as was much of the country. Home, symbol of safety and security, had become its opposite – the sturdier its walls, the harder they could fall inwards, crushing bones.
With every hint of a tremor – I, who had arrived after the earthquake, couldn’t even feel them – everyone, Israeli and Nepali, started as if a gun had gone off behind their ears. Our offices and staff and volunteer houses had been checked and declared safe by a building engineer who was part of the mission sent over by the IDF, but my entire staff was reluctant to sleep indoors.
“How silly,” I thought. But that night, though exhausted from the events of the week and my all-night flight, I couldn’t sleep. The panic was contagious. I took my blanket and found an empty tent in the yard below.
The last time I had ridden in a car on Shabbat was 25 years before, during Operation Solomon, but with the urgencies and uncertainties of the villagers in the hinterland and the need to act quickly, it seemed to me that the rule that Shabbat can be broken when life is in danger clearly applied.
The night before, Tevel b’Tzedek staff and volunteers had sung and danced through the Kabbalat Shabbat service, despite everything. We stopped for a moment to contemplate the words in the traditional Lecha Dodi prayer: “Temple of the King, Royal City, rise up, escape from the midst of the overturning.
Too long you have sat in the Valley of Tears, and He will turn His compassion upon you.” The verses were written about Jerusalem, but they seemed eerily applicable to the Kathmandu Valley, with its temples and royal palaces, and its overturning. But it wasn’t yet time for the tears to end.
Three village areas – two in which we had worked for four years, one for three – were in the areas most affected by the quake. Dr. Bishnu Chapagain, our Nepal country director who spent 11 years in Israel, earning a PhD in plant science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, had already made it out to one of them, Mahadev Besi, during the first days after the earthquake, and had reported massive destruction.
The Joint Distribution Committee had kindly offered to partner with Tevel in its relief work and had sent Sam Ammiel and Mike Attinson, two disaster veterans, along with Elijah Jacob, the JDC’s India country director, to Nepal – they joined us on our trip to assess the situation in the rural villages where we had worked.
So did Sharon Shaul, a family doctor for a kibbutz who volunteers with Natan, an Israeli humanitarian organization named after Abie Nathan, an Israeli bohemian- businessman who had been a rogue humanitarian as well as owner and operator of The Voice of Peace radio station.
Also with us was Bijay Shrestha, a key member of our Nepali staff who had just spent the year starting our Burundi project; he had flown back after the earthquake.
We drove an hour and a half, then walked a half-hour or so until we reached Mahadev Besi.
The village had been the apple of our eye, the jewel in our crown; it was the home of the low caste, the marginalized “Dunwar Rai,” who had lived for centuries fishing a river that no longer had fish.
When we had arrived there, in 2008, most of the population of the village was crushing stones by the river where they had once fished, for sale as gravel to building materials companies. The women were illiterate, and so shy they would not look a stranger in the eye; they were not part of the community leadership.
There were no toilets in the entire village, and many of the children went to school only sporadically.
We managed to change all that. We channeled water from a turn of the river half a kilometer away, to fields that had previously been dry, and with help from the Foreign Ministry built a teaching farm. One of our staff, a charismatic Nepali agronomist, had lived there for four years, mentoring the farmers, introducing new methods and crops.
We had started women’s groups, trained group leaders, started youth groups that specialized in theater productions which exposed and criticized social injustices.
After four years there, the villagers were no longer crushing rocks; they earned their living selling vegetables commercially.
The women were literate, active and outspoken, a crucial part of the community leadership. The children were in school. Every home had a bio-gas toilet.
But now, catastrophe had struck. We were led through a village in which most of the houses were only rubble. No humans had been killed, but many of the animals, tied up beneath their sheds, had been. The villagers were living under a low communal tarp they had spread by the side of their broken homes. One building, a simple cement room, was still standing – a community meeting place that was a demonstration of how well our empowerment had worked: The women had gone to the district government and received funds to build it.
Men, women and children streamed into this building to hear what we had to say: We spoke to them, telling them we would not leave them, that despite everything, the village would be rebuilt. They hugged us and applauded. We asked if there was anyone who needed to see a doctor. Nearly everyone raised their hand; during the course of the day, Dr. Sharon would see 60 patients and more were waiting when we had to leave the area. The physician saw fevers, diarrhea, upper respiratory infections – the result of the trauma, of living outside, of the fact that once again, the village was without toilets.
Hiring small truck, we took a steep dirt road up to Rani Mala, an area in the high hills with three villages – Piple, Chaki Maki and Bir Pani – where we had sent staff and volunteers for three years. Along the winding, bumpy road we could see ruined houses, but mostly we rode through forest inhabited by multicolored birds and butterflies, witnessing a lone graceful deer leaping her way up the mountain.
We made it to two of the three villages – the other, Bir Pani, was an additional hour-long walk up the steep hills. “Just the fact that you came to see us,” the leader of one of the villages told us, “means so much to us, you can’t imagine.”
Most of the houses were completely destroyed – some were cracked, considered unsafe in the meantime.
The most urgent need here, as in thousands of villages in the affected areas, was for temporary shelter. The monsoon, when the skies open and rain pours down for hours every day, was due within weeks; without temporary shelter for humans and beasts, the disaster would be compounded several-fold.
People in the city were talking about plastic tarps or tents, but that was not what the villagers wanted.
“Tin sheets for roofing will stand up better against the monsoon, and we can use them again when we rebuild our houses,” they informed us. “We need the tin, nails and some tools – the rest we can do.”
“But it’s hard for us to work,” some of the village women added. “We are dizzy, and fatigued. We eat, and we are hungry again right away.” We understood: Along with tin sheets and medical care, the villagers needed post-trauma interventions, psychological help assimilating and understanding what they had been through.
“The bright spot is that our young people, who had gone away to Kathmandu, are back in the village,” one of the village leaders said with a smile. “We kept asking them to come back, but they didn’t want to. But now they are here, they know they will get fed. In Kathmandu they didn’t feel safe.” Another bright spot: in the hills, where water is always at a premium, the earthquake had shifted something, revealing a hidden underground source – the village springs were pouring out more water than ever before.
The next day, Sunday, all of the Nepali staff finally returned. Bishnu spoke to them in Nepali, detailing our new plan of action. I spoke to them in English. “We don’t know the meaning of a tragedy like this,” I told them. “We’ve told you about the massacres we, the Jews, went through – we know that figuring out why there was so much suffering is beyond our capacity. What we can do is bounce back.”
I took a page here from a popular hashtag, #Nepalwillbounceback: “We did bounce back. Nepal will bounce back. We are here for every one of you, we want to know exactly what is happening with your families. But Nepal needs your help. We need you fully back here, right now.”
Our volunteers, who had been assigned to Tevel’s project in the city slums before the earthquake, had been working tirelessly in the Israeli field hospital and the Israeli Embassy’s situation room. But most had been in remote villages. On Sunday they arrived in Kathmandu, and all 50, including staff, assembled.
“It’s a totally new situation,” I explained. “We always told you that Tevel has two ‘lighthouses’ or goals – transforming impoverished villages, and creating Israeli and Jewish global social justice leadership. Right now, the second lighthouse is suspended. With the monsoon coming, we have to put everything we have into relief. Anyone who feels like they want to go home at this point, we will understand completely. Anyone who wants to stay has to recommit in this new situation.”
Just then, an aftershock, like an injection of fear, distorted people’s faces. “We want you. We have lots of work to do. But you have to want to be here under these conditions, and to bear with the uncertainty of what is to come.”
Esther Brownstein, our program director from the Israel office, who had arrived on Wednesday and shown unusual leadership capacities since then, unveiled our plan: We would divide staff and volunteers into teams. Teams would go out into each of the four village areas we had worked or were currently working in; all of these were in the hardest- hit districts and needed urgent help before the monsoon. We would work through the women’s groups, youth groups and farmers groups with whom we already had an intimate connection, and would focus on four areas: shelter, physical health, mental health and education – with the schools closed for now, it was imperative the children be kept safe and occupied.
The Natan NGO was sending us additional doctors to prevent epidemics of infectious diseases – we would send them out to do mobile clinics in each village in turn. Naomi Baum, a volunteer from the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, was already here, and more psychologists were on their way; they would train our staff, group leaders from the village and teachers, in healing exercises that would allow villagers to release their fear and stress, and recharge for the arduous tasks ahead.
Meanwhile, we would recruit building engineers from Nepal and Israel to inspect cracked homes that had not fallen and see if they could be salvaged. The volunteers would work with the local community, together with the Nepali staff, to help make this all happen.
In Kathmandu, an additional team would work out of our community center in Kalimati, an impoverished neighborhood of migrants, with some of the thousands of urban refugees now living in tent camps. Our great resources here were our youth groups – by Monday morning, our office was already bustling with Nepali teenagers – our women’s groups and our relationship with the community’s public schools.
Four other teams of Nepalis and Israelis – logistics, research and organizational partnerships, education and management – were also formed. The job of the logistics team was to figure out things like where to buy tin sheeting, where to get medicine, how to arrange for transportation back and forth to the villages, and acquiring tents for our staff and volunteers in the field. Research and partnerships meant discovering the best methods for constructing shelter, making communal toilets and so forth – and hooking ourselves into the labyrinthine UN system that was meant to coordinate the relief work.
Josh of World Jewish Relief, a British organization and another partner, had seemingly endless knowledge about both the emergency field measures and the UN bureaucracy; he gave our research team a crash course.
And so, on Tuesday at 7 a.m., volunteers and staff climbed onto buses and jeeps and headed for the villages. Out of 50, all but four of the volunteers had committed to staying on.
The largest team, which included Sharon and another doctor, Dalia Navot of Natan, as well as Josh and Dr. Bishnu, headed for Sundrawati, eight hours away in Dolkha, one of the hardest-hit districts. It was the only village we had not yet managed to reach; it was remote, built on a mountainside. We knew very little about what was going on there, except what we had learned from an urgent and hurried phone call from our local mobilizer, who made it from the village – where there is no electricity – to the district headquarters. She said that many homes had been destroyed; all the others were uninhabitable.
We had helped the villagers, from the tiny and marginalized Thami ethnic group, grow tomatoes during the monsoon season using plastic tunnels. Now, whole families were camping out in the tunnels.
Rescue work is just about over, and some international teams have already packed up and returned home. But the monsoon is coming. And after the monsoon, a long winter without permanent shelter. And many, many villages must reconstruct their homes and lives, while continuing to eke out a living that even beforehand was not sufficient.
But the Nepali people are resilient, welcoming, and courageous. And Tevel b’Tzedek is here for the long haul. 
The writer is the head of Tevel b’Tzedek.