Blog 4 - Nepal earthquake

Published: 5 May 2015 22:04 CET

Merlijn Stoffels/Netherlands Red Cross

For the past few days, I’ve been in transit to Nepal. Without access to my suitcase, I’ve been wearing the same clothes for days, can’t comb my hair, and am growing a beard. My eyes are stinging from the lack of contact lens solution. I’m uncomfortable.  

It’s nothing, of course, in comparison to what the people of Nepal are feeling. I have food and water. I’m not wondering whether my family and friends are alive. I’m not coping with the loss of loved ones who didn’t survive the 7.8 earthquake that struck the country on Saturday. I don’t have to worry about whether I will ever rebuild my house and my life. I, on the other hand, will return to normal when I lift my suitcase off the conveyor belt in baggage claim.

I’ve been unable to get into Nepal for days now because the Kathmandu airport, which only has one runway, is overwhelmed. So instead, I start my days with media interviews from the Abu Dhabi airport departure hall. Radio 2 presenter Toine van Peperstraten asks if this is the biggest disaster I have ever experienced -- a difficult question to answer. How do I measure this? Is the number of dead and injured the determining factor? Or the amount of damage? I decide to answer that it is hard to compare disasters with one another, but that with many millions of people affected by the earthquake, we can definitely say that this is a major disaster that requires a lot of help.

Radio 4 presenter Margriet Vromans wants to know if the Red Cross is happy with the 4,500 volunteers who will map out aid workers’ routes using satellite images. It’s great to see how technology and relief can go hand in hand. Speaking of innovations, yesterday a drone shot footage of the disaster zones that haven’t been reached yet. Instantaneously, the footage showed how serious the damage is in these hard-to-reach areas.

During this flight, I took the time to really read up on Nepal. My travel guide describes the country as “Wedged between the high wall of the Himalaya and the steamy jungle of the Indian plains.” One of the poorest countries in the world, 85% of the population lives in rural areas. But it’s a beautiful country and my guide is full of suggestions for treks through nature reserves. 

The guide makes reference to the kindness of Nepalis: “You come for the mountains the first time, but you come back for the people.” This matches the impression I have gotten up to now. During this long trip I have spoken to quite a few Nepalis and all of them have invited me to stay in their homes. “If my house is still standing that is,” one of them adds.

Hinduism and Buddhism play an important role in daily life, and the country is full of temples. The most famous, Swayambhunath, is in Kathmandu. A photo of the temple, a Unesco World Heritage site, adorns the cover of my travel guide. Yesterday I heard that the earthquake had not spared it. Saturday’s quake was not the biggest to strike the country. That was in 1934 when, in a matter of minutes, 8,000 people lost their lives and one-fourth of the homes were destroyed.

It is extremely iffy whether or not we will be able to land, and again, there is no room on the ground for the plane to park. We have another half hour of fuel left, the pilot announces. If we can’t land this time, we will have to go back to Abu Dhabi, again. Time is running out and the tension is growing. I notice that the half hour is now up, and then I finally hear the words I’ve been waiting for, “Cabin crew prepare for landing.” After nearly three days of travelling and being kept in a holding pattern above the Kathmandu airport, the time has finally come.

Cheers and applause erupt like a giant sigh of relief as the plane touches down on the runway. The French rescue team, still in uniform, can finally do what they came here to do: save lives. Nepalis can go look for their families. Journalists can report on the disaster and I can go reinforce the International Red Cross team.