Nepal Earthquake One Year On – Residents Suffering Psychological Damage, Living in Fear

The scale of the Nepal earthquake in April of 2015 has left many residents with psychological damage and living in fear with every tremor.
Even a relatively minor tremor measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale in January of this year, while not causing major damage, left several people injured and others crying and panicking on the streets of Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu.

Reports at the time suggested that some were wounded from leaping from windows as soon as the earth began to shake, such is the desperation to flee buildings that in a few seconds could easily become mass graves.

Yadev Nidhi Niraula, a local school principal, says that while he and some of his compatriots may not be physically wounded, the mental scars are still there and are still raw.

“I am still disturbed psychologically because of this earthquake and of course economically,” says Mr Niraula, who has two children. “We are still living in fear, so every time there is an earthquake we try to run away. Still we have aftershocks and even when the aftershocks come we try to flee.

He continued: “Many people are affected psychologically by this earthquake. They lost their family, they lost their houses, they lost their property. So it was very paining. But slowly life became normal, but after 15 days there was another bigger earthquake and that has destroyed so much. Many houses collapsed, many people died.”

The effort to reconstruct Nepal has largely relied on the private sector and NGO’s. Despite receiving billions of pounds in international donations, the Nepali government only announced the official start of reconstruction in January.

Rebuilding Nepal

That has left it to locals to take matters into their own hands such as engineer Narayan Acharya, who runs the company Rammed Earth Solutions which specialises in the building of low-cost, green, earthquake-resistant houses.

With his knowledge, Narayan is frustrated at his government’s lacklustre response, especially during the harsh winter months in Nepal.

“I know it is difficult, there is thousands and thousands of houses to rebuild,” he says. “But something the government could do is run effective programmes to help, like distributing warm clothes and when building small houses, installing insulation is such a simple thing to do. It doesn’t cost that much money. Put some mud on the side, some grass on the top, and the house will be insulated.”

Narayan constructed his own house in 2011, in a small village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, using rammed earth and bamboo. The concept is influenced by a New Zealand house building method. The home is solar and uses recycled materials, but most importantly it can withstand earthquakes, so Narayan’s desire to see the compressed earth concept is not purely for his own business gains.

He says: “I built my house, I was on BBC news. I don’t want any money but I want to promote the technology, the government should support me. Then other people can learn as well.”

Unfortunately until new methods are embraced, many people could be rebuilding structures in a way that if another earthquake were to happen – and a bigger one is predicted by experts – they would come crashing down all over again.

Lindsay Burns, an Australian disaster relief coordinator for the company Projects Abroad, believes that Nepal will sadly take longer to get back on its feet than other disaster-affected countries.

“It’s my understanding that most of the money that was raised internationally has not reached the ground,” Burns says. “It seems most the development work is coming from foreign NGO’s. It seems as though the aid money that was raised has been filtered in the government and has sat there.

“I understand the constitution changes, but as someone living here, with the limited knowledge I have, it feels as though the government is not doing what they ought to do from a financial standpoint and without development organisations and without people coming to volunteer, it seems like the work wouldn’t be done.”

When asked how long it will take for Nepal to rebuild, calling on his experience in global disaster relief, Burns says: “Five to ten years. A very long time. In Kathmandu you have access to materials, but there are so many people in isolated mountain regions, a lot of these places are a days hike away or two days walk away.

“A lot of these people are in severe need and don’t even get the minimal exposure that Kathmandu residents get. So it’s going to be a very long time for those people especially to get back on their feet”.


A remarkable railway – remembering sacrifice of war heroes in a small corner of Thailand

Approaching my month in Thailand, much of the focus from others centred on the time I would be spending on the countries famous islands. 
When it comes to idyllic locations, Thailand clearly can boast a plethora of sites, from Koh Tao, to Koh Samui, Phi Phi and beyond. 

Indeed, Koh Phagnan has its famous Full Moon Party that apparently no trip to Thailand is complete without. 

But for me, the real highlight of my trip was not the white sandy beaches, or the delights of Bangkok, nor even the traditional and beautifully ornate temples scattered around. 

It was instead a relic of World War Two that without certain films, could very easily be consigned as an afterthought when studying the global impact of the conflict between 1939-1945. 

The bridge over the river Kwai forms part of the Burmese railway that was commissioned by the Japanese forces as part of their Burma campaign in 1942. 

It’s estimated that around 13,000 Allied prisoners of war died in the construction of the 415km long railway. 

Upon arrival in the city of Kanchanaburi, where the most famous part of the railway is, a visit to a small war museum set up very starkly what prisoners went through to build the transport system. 

The exhibit only included photographs and artist impressions at the time but they were enough to evoke the hot, sickly, conditions where men suffered in various ways. 

Hunger, disease, exhaustion were clear to see in black and white evidence. There’s no getting away from it, even in holiday locations – war is hell. 

Like many places in Thailand it’s not uncommon to see dusty buildings or litter in the street. But the most clean and well kept area shined like a beacon as our taxi rounded the corner. The war cemetery is rightly kept respectfully preened. 

Around 7,000 graves paid tribute mainly to British, Australian and Dutch soldiers who gave their lives so far from home. The loss of life can not get any sadder, but I couldn’t help feel an greater pang of discomfort in my stomach that these men had given their lives on the other side of the world to their loved ones. 

We are used to seeing war memorials in Europe; they have almost become part of the landscape. But it’s easy to forget how far the war stretched across the globe. 

The bridge itself is a feat of engineering to behold. The famous film (based on the book by Pierre Boulle) may exaggerate the British engineers influence in its design but there is something familiar in its arching loops. Perhaps because it’s something that harks back to Brunel’s Victorian designs that did influence engineering as a whole the world over. 

What was startling though was the amount of grinning selfies and funny poses taking place on the bridge. I myself can admit to an almost childish glee at visiting not just a famous historical war site but a locomotive icon too, something I had read about as a young boy with extreme fascination. 

I caught myself and remembered to hold in my thoughts the loss of life that was suffered to put this in place. Indeed, the construction of the railway is considered in Asia as a war crime committed by Japan. 

Riding the death railway was an even more surreal experience. In equal measure, one cannot help but feel astounded and horrified that a line of such complexity with more than 600 bridges and in dire conditions was completed in less than 12 months. 

Nowhere more impressive is it than when the train reaches a point where the track is suspended above the ground, alongside steep rocks, held up only by thick wooden struts. One can see right down to the perilous ground, maybe 70, 80 metres below wondering how on earth one would even begin to build such a structure. I am no engineer so I am sure I can be enlightened. 

But it all reinforces what an (unfortunate) motivator forced labour can be. Construction camps existed all along the railway housing thousands of prisoners. Men often had a two foot wide space to sleep in and nothing more. Food was scarce, so too was water – and I in 2016 with all my travelling comforts, am suffering in the Thai April heat so I can’t comprehend what intense physical labour must be like to undertake in this humidity. 

Then there was the torture. As Eric Lomax puts it in his remembrances of building the railway in his memoir The Railway Man: “Torture, after all, is inconspicuous; all it needs is water, a piece of wood and a loud voice. It takes place in squalid rooms, dirty back yards and basements, and there is nothing left to preserve when it is over.”

Now only a portion of the railway is in use, and plans to reconnect it to Burma have not resurfaced of late. 

As many other war relics it’s important that it is kept, to serve as a reminder more than just as a means of transport for locals. 

The rickety click-clacking along the track is validation I feel for those who suffered here. Of course it’s not just POW’s who built the railway but thousands of local workers, struggling on in the same conditions. 

When I was a boy, I remember watching David Lean’s epic film The Bridge On The River Kwai in my Dad’s study, wide-eyed, and listening intently. 

Coming to the end of my ride on the rails, I thought about one of the quotes in the film by Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson: 

“One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.”

War – what is it good for? Vietnam’s rise from the flames

Walking through the jungles in southern Vietnam, it’s hard to imagine the amount of devastation caused by the millions of tons of bombs dropped on this country by the USA.
But every so often, our guide will point to what just seems to be a wide ditch in the ground and says “bomb crater”. 

That seems to be the case here in Vietnam. On the surface, you would not notice much hangover from the war. But look a little closer, and then you notice; a man with no legs (blown off), buildings still in ruins, and people with skin conditions (agent orange). 

Yet, the perceived antagonism towards America is not widespread. I was shocked at how embracing the country was of western goods and services, despite a horrendous conflict with France and then later our partners across the pond.

Indeed there has been incredible development in Vietnam in recent years. Since 1986 when certain economic reforms were introduced, Vietnam has gone from being one of the world’s poorest countries to a development success story. 

In the early 1990s, more than 50% of the population were living in extreme poverty. According to the world bank, that number is now 3%.
Vietnam has also achieved several significant targets recently, confirmed by the United Nations last year, such as implementing universal primary education, reducing maternal and child mortality, and promoting gender equality in education. 

The country is firmly rooted in looking towards the future, with a focus on achieving business growth the next big target. They are spurred on in their quest by the man who’s face adorns the currency, murals, and so much more: Ho Chi Minh. 

History has been kind to ‘Uncle Ho’. He’s fared much better so far than his Communist counterparts such as Lenin, Mao and Stalin (not hard, one might say).

But perhaps Ho Chi Minh is still so revered because Vietnam had not had a powerfully strong national identity until he founded the democratic republic in 1945.

It can be seen even in the way that Vietnam looks at the past. The ruins of the Emperor’s palace in Hue and the royal tombs are in a such dilapidated state, that renovations are not easy to spot. They are overgrown, dirty and to put it bluntly, shabby.

This could be put down to the country’s attitude towards the former ruling classes but then look at the how the Chinese keep the Forbidden City in Beijing in such good knick. Or even the nostalgic reverence many European republics hold for their imperial palaces.

It is not surprising therefore that Ho Chi Minh’s former residence and even his embalmed body itself are protected and kept clean to a fastidious standard. 

One cannot even enter his residence, such is the high esteem in which it is held. Visitors can only glance through thick window panes at where the man worked “for the service of the people”. 

His body is open to the public for a few hours in the morning and protected by many guards. You have to walk round at a brisk pace and in respectful silence. 

Even though Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, his legacy really is the national culture of Vietnam. It’s strange to see a country still so relatively young in its development. Then again, coming from Britain where arguably the last biggest establishment shakeup was the civil war of 1642-1651 means most countries seem young in their growth. 

But Vietnam’s strength is in how everything is seemingly done for the people. This point is always stressed no matter where you go, from Hanoi, to Hue and down to Ho Chi Minh City.

Even with a mighty superpower like the USA dropping their bombs, sending kids to fight in a far away jungle, Vietnam just kept saying no. This is by no means meant to romanticise what went on, as both sides committed horrendous atrocities.

Of course Vietnam is a one party state, and whatever positives may have come from their recent economic successes, including a rising GDP, it must be said that people should have a truly democratic choice in who governs them. 

The people I spoke to said it did not concern them that they could only vote for various candidates from the same party. They insisted they were happy. That faith can very easily be tested in today’s unfortunately volatile political climate. 

With new channels of communication opened up to the younger generation such as social media, it will be interesting to see now where Vietnam takes its place in an ever changing world.