Treacherous journey to epicenter of deadly Nepal earthquake
BARPAK, Nepal– More than 1,400 meters above sea level, amidst Nepal’s treacherous alpine terrain, an entire mountain is shaking.
The terrifying tremors last for about five seconds. They send the few villagers left in the remote village of Mandre — a 174km drive northwest of Kathmandu, when roads are passable — scrambling down the mountainside towards the relative safety of the plains. Most of the village has taken refuge there since the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck more than a week ago.
We hear a landslide below us. In the distance, three more can be seen, triggered by the jolt.
Sunil Bishokerma, making his way up the mountain with his brother to search for his missing family members, tells us his whole body is in shock.
“I am very afraid,” he says.
We are making our way on foot in an attempt to reach Barpak, a village in Nepal’s Western Region. It lies more than 2,000 meters above sea level, at the epicenter of the deadly April 25 quake which has claimed 7,365 lives.
The route here has involved an eight-hour drive west from Nepal’s capital, along a bumpy road winding its way along the banks of the Trishuli River.
As we drive among stunning Himalayan scenery, the effects of the earthquake gradually reveal themselves.
We meet a mother, Miru, who tells us her family have lost everything. The only consolation — that they still have their daughter Sanjita, who was nearly killed when their house collapsed.
At a local grocery store, we meet a group from a village further up the mountain. They’ve been walking down to the road every day since the quake hit to try to get assistance, but so far none has arrived.
The little aid we do see is generated by the community. We encounter 10 friends who say they have driven 100 km (62 miles) on their motorbikes to distribute supplies.
“We have heard that (the) earthquake affect(ed) that village and we came to help them,” says one.
Further along, we reach the end of the road. Massive boulders have tumbled down the mountainside, crushing a digger and blocking the road, cutting off what lies beyond from a vital lifeline to aid. From here we must continue on foot.
The arduous path up the mountain is marked with gaping crevasses and uprooted trees, tossed down the slope. Porters say we should proceed with caution, as the steep walkway is unstable and there is a constant threat of falling debris from the frequent tremors.
The village of Mandre — or what is left of it — is unnervingly empty.
Unlike many other villages we’ve passed through, there are no shelters pitched next to the ruined homes.
There are only markers of what has been lost. A child’s doll — a Winnie the Pooh plush toy — lies abandoned amid the scattered stones and broken timber of what was once a home. There’s a fresh grave for three young women, marked with a traditional necklace showing one was married.
Nepalese troops arrive to dig out the bodies of livestock buried beneath the rubble, the decomposing carcasses leaving a heavy stink in the air. But there’s no sign that any aid has made it here, other than three tents dropped days earlier.
Further up the mountain — a seven-hour trek from where we left our vehicle, stopping to film along the way — we finally reach Barpak.
The scene is one of complete devastation. The mountainside is dotted with white stones marking graves of the freshly buried. Ninety-five percent of the homes here are destroyed — those that survived are made of brick and concrete, as opposed to the stone and timber construction that predominates.
The village is a sea of debris: corrugated iron and piled timber. There’s a din of clanking and hammering, as residents undertake the work of dismantling the wreckage themselves.
Even here, at the earthquake’s epicenter, aid has been frustratingly slow in arriving. One of the few signs of assistance is an Indian army medical team, treating the infected head wound of an injured girl, who cries as they insert stitches.
‘Best we can’
Why more assistance has failed to make it from Kathmandu to here, where it is needed most, seems inexplicable.
But Nepal’s Information Minister Minendra Rijal says the country’s response is the best it could do, given the paucity of its resources and the magnitude of the disaster.
“Given the resources we have, given the situation that we’re facing, I would say we’re doing the best we can,” he tells CNN.
“I’m not saying that it could not have been better — it could have been better — but I would not say this is something to complain a lot about.”
He compared the government’s response to the U.S.’s struggle to respond to Hurricane Katrina — and disputed claims that unlike Katrina, this earthquake was anticipated.
“This was also unexpected,” he said.
“The preparations that were made in the workshops and seminars were simply of no use… No one forecasted an earthquake which would span as large an area as it did, which would affect as many people as it did.”
Back in Barpak, Bishokerma chases information from locals about the fate of his family members.
He has received no word from them since the quake.
There’s an ominous piece of news from a local resident: she says a girl was killed on their street.
Things do not look promising on the approach to the site of their former home, now a cascade of rubble. Bishokerma walks slowly, dreading what he may discover.
But there’s good news. His aunt rushes out from a tent and throws her arms around him.
“My god, they are okay,” says Bishokerma, as tears stream down his cousin’s face.
They have lost almost everything. But at least they are alive.
By Arwa Damon, Samson Karki and Tim Hume