A family comes together to start recovery in Nepal


May 8, 2015

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  • Sujata's home survived the earthquake, but the loss of a family member was devastating. All photos: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

After their own household chores are done in the early morning hours, Sujata Tamang and her neighbors gather together to do the hard work of plowing each other’s cornfields by hand. Every few days another woman’s fields are prepared, and this was Sujata's turn. It was the day the earthquake struck.

Sujata fell to the ground as the earth rumbled beneath her. Then she heard Manoj, her husband’s young brother, shouting from a few hundred feet away near the house. His father was trapped.

“After he shouted, we all went there to get his dad out,” she said. Her own two young children were at her mother’s house, two hours away.

The women scrambled up the steeply terraced cornfields to reach the two-story, mud brick house. It had completely collapsed. Manoj, 14, had jumped out of the second floor window when he felt the house was going to fall, and was now screaming and digging frantically for his father.

“We were really panicking,” she said. All of the men were away from the village working, so it was just the women and Manoj left to dig out the bricks and stone and free her father-in-law.

They reached him quickly and it appeared his outward injuries seemed small. He was able to walk back to the house, so Sujata immediately turned her attention, calling her husband, who was already rushing home on his motorbike.

“I was most worried about my two children and my mother,” she said. “As soon as we got [my father-in-law] out, my husband and I rushed to where our children were,” she said. They jumped back on the motorbike and made it to her mother’s house in Kavre, the next district over.

“When we got there, we realized my mother’s house was also completely destroyed. It was all gone.” Thankfully, her mother had been with the children outside in the fields, too. Everyone was badly shaken, but alive and uninjured.

Sujata talks with Mercy Corps staff member Aishwarya Rana. Their village received emergency kits after the earthquake.

When her son Sabin, 6, and daughter Sushmita, 11, saw their parents, they ran to them and started crying hysterically. “They were shouting, ‘we want to go back home, we want to go back home.’”

For the next four nights or so, they slept outside under some plastic sheeting they had. Sujata is so tired she can’t quite count the nights. Her house wasn’t visibly damaged, but the family was terrified it would also collapse.

They snuck in quickly to grab sleeping mats, food and some cooking utensils, but didn’t dare stay. When it started raining, they came back to the house again for a moment, but another aftershock forced them to retreat to the makeshift tent.

“For two or three days we didn’t sleep well because we were so worried.” She says they were also concerned about thieves and tigers while staying outside. In another village in the area, a tiger had killed a small child just three or four months before.

When the aftershocks seemed to die down and the house seemed stable, Sujata's family moved back inside. But because their homes were severely damaged and unlivable, 16 relatives are camped out with them now, unsure how long until they can build temporary homes.

Sujata and Mercy Corps staff walk near the Lakure Bhanjyang village.

By many measures, the Tamang family and their relatives are extremely poor. They are of one of the lowest castes in Nepal. Family wealth in villages is sometimes said to be best measured by how many four-legged animals they own. Combined, Sujata's relatives own only two cows and about 20 goats. All of their chickens have escaped.

A few days later, as the family was out tending to the goats and other chores, Sujata's father-in-law passed away in his sleep. She says he must have had internal injuries, or perhaps the stress was just too much to bear. She doesn’t know.

They’ve created a sanctuary in the living room and will burn incense and candles for the traditional 13 day mourning period. Manoj and the other sons in the family have shaved their heads to pay respect. He also can’t cross any rivers for the mourning period, and we hear the school is across the river. It doesn’t matter now though, because the school has also collapsed.

In the days that have passed since the earthquake, Sujata has gone back to her mother’s village to help her salvage sheets of tin from the rubble and build a temporary home nearby.

Sujata nurtures her six-year-old son Sabin, who misses playing before the earthquake.

Her mother suffers from severe asthma, normally using a canister of oxygen every few days. The dust and particles from all of the debris have left her wheezing and unable to catch her breath. She’s using four canisters a day now, a heavy expense she and her brothers are sharing.

While we talk, Sabin plays with his baby cousin, trying to feed her rice and making her giggle. His mother gently swats him away when he crawls up on the table and starts to get into the cooking supplies. He wanders outside making truck noises and singing to himself.

Since the earthquake, the family has spent a lot of time at home mourning and mentally recharging. Sabin’s the kind of little kid who’s prone to trouble-making, and there’s just not much for the little six-year-old to do with all his pent-up energy.

Sujata is focused on the immediate future, but finds it hard to motivate herself every day. “Shelter is our biggest concern right now for our families,” she says. “There is lots of other work we would normally do, but we’ve been idle about our chores since the earthquake. There are some things you can’t stop doing, like taking care of the animals, which is really important.”

Meanwhile, Manoj sits quietly and listens. He doesn’t know how long his school will be closed or how they will resume classes. He had just finished eighth grade and was about to start ninth.

“I want to study but the school is broken,” he says. He’s not sure what he wants to be when he grows up, but he misses his friends right now. He says they used to play soccer all the time and he loved playing every position, but they haven’t played since the earthquake.

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