Desperate journeys back to ruined villages

RAMCHE (Nepal) - Mr Madhu Badu had been on the road for the better part of three days, trying to get back to his native village, back to his wife and children, near the epicentre of the devastating earthquake north-west of Kathmandu. His journey had begun on a bus, but the roads had become impassable and now he was on foot.

As he climbed a dirt path strewn with boulders and the muddy debris of landslides, hints of the devastation that awaited him in Ramche greeted him: An elderly woman, groaning in pain, draped on the back of a man carrying her down the mountain; a hamlet where residents were burying the dead; piles of stone rubble where farmhouses once stood.

Desperate residents appeared from the forests, pleading for help from him and a journalist. "We lost everything!" cried one, Mr Baldev Bhatta, his eyes bloodshot. "You are the first outsiders to come here. We have no grain. We have no money. We cannot rebuild on our own. You need to send this news to the world."

Mr Badu knew his family was safe - he had tried calling his wife for four hours last Saturday before he finally got through - but she said the village was badly damaged and he was anxious to help.

Across the countryside outside Kathmandu, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are making similar desperate journeys, abandoning the jobs that had drawn them from home and travelling through difficult terrain to get back to villages like Ramche that have been all but cut off from the world.

The official death toll has been climbing daily and could reach 10,000, said Nepal's Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. But the extent of the destruction and loss of life in the countryside is largely unknown.

In the devastated village of Ramche, Mr Badu, visibly shaken, stopped in what used to be the courtyard of the high school, considering what might have happened if the earthquake had not struck on a Saturday when its 500 students were absent. The only people in the building at the time were 18 teachers in a training session. Four were killed.

Mr Badu said he felt very fortunate that his house had survived.

Residents in the village still had vegetables and livestock but were worried they would not last long.

Mr Badu's wife, Bishnu, returned home from the fields to find her husband waiting for her.

"This is big happiness for me," she said. But she was nervous.

"I fear there will be more earthquakes," she said.

NEW YORK TIMES