By Phil Johnstone, IFRC
They may well be Nepal’s most resilient mother and baby, having survived two earthquakes and endured a year that included monsoon rains, months of shortages and a Himalayan winter in a flimsy shelter at an altitude of 1,340 metres.
“We thought we would die so many times,” recalls Dolma Bomjan Tamang. “We have got through the past year, but only just. Slowly we are returning to normal and feel more confident. We will survive this.”
‘Normal’ is relative of course for Dolma’s family and the more than four million Nepali people who were displaced when 800,000 houses were damaged or destroyed by the two earthquakes that struck in April and May 2015.
One year on, many of those affected still live in small shelters built with salvaged items and materials donated in the weeks after the quake. The government estimates the human and infrastructure losses and livelihood disruption will push at least 700,000 Nepalis into poverty by the end of 2016.
Playing with his mother, eleven-month-old Nishan has no idea how traumatic and dangerous his first year has been.
Two weeks before his birth, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake trapped his parents in their collapsed house. They emerged, cut and bruised, to scenes of destruction. One hundred and sixty of the 2,260 residents of their remote hillside community of Banskharka in hard-hit Sindhupalchowk district were dead. A further 300 were injured, 65 seriously.
“As I lay trapped I thought I would die,” recalls Dolma Bomjan Tamang. “For several days after the quake I was in pain and we had no food. My husband was involved in rescuing people and helping others. We had no money and we worried about how we could survive.”
She went into labour two weeks after the quake. The local health clinic had collapsed and staff told her they had no medicine and limited equipment to help her.
“We had no way to travel to the nearest town, Melamchi. I felt I would not survive the delivery of my baby. Suddenly a Japanese Red Cross Society vehicle was there. The team offered to transport me down the hill to the town, 90 minutes away. I was so relieved and began to believe I would be okay.”
She gave birth to Nishan after 24 hours of labour. After a night at the clinic they were returned to their village by ambulance.
A few days later the pair was resting in a cattle shed next to their ruined home when the second 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck on 12 May. Alone, she scooped up her newborn and ran for the door.
“As I escaped, the shed collapsed behind me. The main beam crashed onto the earth floor. I couldn’t believe what was happening to us.”
At the time, Dolma’s husband Shusil Bomjan was in the village collecting relief materials. “Suddenly everything was shaking. I ran home. It took five minutes. As I ran I started to cry. I thought my wife and son would be dead. I was so relieved to see they were safe.”
Gradually help arrived for their village. The Nepal Red Cross Society, supported by members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, provided food, hygiene kits and blankets. With the support of the Japanese Red Cross, work started on a replacement health clinic, one of 28 across earthquake-hit districts. The government gave cash grants and agencies provided corrugated iron sheets and toilets.
Challenges over subsequent months included the monsoon, five months of shortages due to protest blockades on the Indian border, and surviving winter in a three-metre by six-metre, iron-roofed shelter.
“The blockade made it very hard to get basic items, and prices went up,” recalls Dolma Bomjan Tamang. “The winter was incredibly cold. We lit a small fire in one corner and I held Nishan against me all the time. We put grass on top of the iron roof to try to keep some heat in.”
Warmer weather since late February has helped the family become more confident about the future. They hope to rebuild their destroyed house in September 2016, after the monsoon, and plan to supplement an expected government payout by getting friends and neighbours to source materials and provide labour.
The opening in May of a Red Cross-funded replacement health clinic in Banskharka is a big milestone in the communities’ recovery, especially for the four local women in late stage pregnancy.
“We all feel relieved and more confident because the health clinic will return soon. It provides basic healthcare if we fall sick, and regular checkups for mothers and children,” says Dolma.