Sikkim: Volunteers reaching the unreachable following quake and landslides

Publié: 17 octobre 2011 13:11 CET

By Stephen Ryan in New Delhi, India

Just four weeks ago, on 18 September, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sikkim, one of the north east states of India, close to the border with neighbouring Nepal. Although each of the states four districts felt the effects of the quake, it is in the North district that the most severe damage has been felt.

Earthquakes bring to mind destroyed buildings, lives lost, the ground shaking beneath one’s feet. Homes are damaged and even destroyed. In North Sikkim, however, this destruction was of a different order; homes simply swept from the earth, including the ground on which they stood.

The normal process of rebuilding homes cannot begin, as the land on which they stood has been swept away by the landslides that followed the quake and heavy rain; a double tragedy. It takes the most resilient of people to look to the future with hope when they no longer even have the plot on which their home stood.

The earthquake damaged roads and bridges, power and telephone lines, and the landslides that followed left many villages affectively cut off from the rest of the world, reachable only by helicopter. In the days following the quake, heavy rainfall, coupled with dense fog made flights impossible, frustrating both government agencies and humanitarian organizations who were trying to reach the thousands of survivors.

Despite these challenges, the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) managed to reach many of the communities that were effectively cut off when the infrastructure was destroyed, often they were the first to provide aid. The IRCS sent blankets, stoves, and tarpaulins for temporary shelter, leaving the food relief to the state authorities, who were reaching isolated villages via air-drops.

Dr. Nishant Kumar, a member of the IRCS national disaster response team (NDRT), travelled to Chungthang with relief supplies and a water purification unit to assist those forced into relief camps. Due to the damaged roads, they did not arrive until 27 September, and then only thanks to the support of the Indian Army who brought the team and their supplies by helicopter.

On arriving at the village, he experienced first hand the frustrations of those who felt they had been forgotten. Once he and his team had explained the role of the Red Cross things changed. Even those who had been most vocal were now eager to work with the Red Cross to set up the water purification unit, which now provides safe drinking water to over 2,000 people; and distributed the relief and medical supplies they had brought. Seeing that this small group was really there to help, many of the villagers even asked how they could join the Red Cross as volunteers.

Having trained the community in how to operate their water purification unit, the team turned south, but as all aircraft were being used to evacuate families, they made the decision to offer their assigned seats on the evacuation helicopters to those who needed them, and instead took a treacherous journey on  foot through the mountains, travelling more than 12km on foot through a damaged tunnel.

Oinam Ratan Singh, another of the team deployed to Sikkim said many of the villages they passed through were ghost towns; their residents having left to stay with family and friends in the south, where the impact of the quake was not so great.

With winter approaching the temperature is falling, and until family homes are rebuilt, conditions will be tough for those who choose to stay. Ratan Singh says: “The people of Sikkim are resilient. Tough, like the environment they live in. They will rebuild. They will return. These mountains are their home.”

With so much of the infrastructure destroyed, including communication lines, many families had no way of knowing if their relatives had survived, had they been evacuated, where they were. The IRCS activated its Family News Service, sending a small team of trained volunteers to the region to assist. Often, simply hearing the voice of a loved one, or reading the words ‘I am alive’ can help relieve feelings of despair. The IRCS is the only organization that offers this service in the disaster stricken state.

The IFRC’s disaster emergency relief fund (DREF) allocated CHF 97,137 to support the Indian Red Cross Society in delivering immediate assistance to some 5,000 beneficiaries. Read more about the DREF.