Spirit, resilience in time of tragedy

Docs work non-stop, residents aid one another

GRIMACING in pain, her face streaked with dried blood, 70-year-old Bisnunayak Kushma lies on a bed in the foyer of the crowded Bir Hospital, Kathmandu's largest.

Her son Mahendra Kushma, 35, and his wife Sobha tend to her, wiping the face of the feeble woman with a moist cloth.

Mr Kushma said they were in their old house in Bhaktapur when they felt the ground shake violently on Saturday. When they realised what was happening, they dashed for the door. He said his mother was slow, and several bricks fell on her head and shoulders.

Around Madam Bisnunayak are other victims of the powerful 7.8-magnitude quake - more than 400 injured and some 100 dead at this hospital alone.

Dr Swoyam Prakash Pandit, the hospital director, told The Straits Times they were coping, but only because the doctors and nurses at the 660-bed facility were working 24-hour shifts. "The government has said it has enough medical supplies, but so far we have not seen any," he said. "But we do need food, for the patients and their families. And with so many people here, we need help with the logistics."

Outside, a row of bodies covered by blankets or sheets lay on the ground, a grim reminder of how deadly earthquakes are for the poor living in flimsy houses. Some were children. They were all from the poorer neighbourhoods, a hospital official said. 

Medical staff were filling out details and Nepali police were carrying bodies away. Thirteen had not been identified, the hospital director said. Among those that had been were two Indians and a Chinese.

The normally crowded roads were eerily empty yesterday. Shops were shuttered. A large part of the population has moved outdoors, to grassy neighbourhood parks or public spaces and school yards, which have been turned into camps. At most of these camps, there is little government help - despite the absence, the communities of Kathmandu have shown impressive spirit and resilience. At one school, local residents, sitting on mattresses and blankets retrieved from their homes nearby, were busy peeling vegetables and cooking for the more than 200 camped on a basketball court.

Namira Banu, 13, recounted a harrowing Saturday night, when they slept outside until a drizzle after midnight drove some of them indoors - only to be sent running out again by aftershocks.

The narrow gullies of the ancient city were deserted, some taped off to signal that they remain danger zones. The rubble and splintered woodwork of collapsed temples littered Patan's Durbar Square, which is among the worst-hit mediaeval enclaves.

With only sporadic commercial flights at Kathmandu's international airport yesterday, there was a 150m-long queue of tired people waiting to get out. 

Singaporean Cynthia Choo, 22, was not among them. The Nanyang Technological University student, who is interning at the Nepal Times newspaper, felt the quake at a company retreat a few kilometres outside the city. She ran outdoors like everyone else, and then sent her parents in Singapore a message to tell them she was safe.

Having been in Kathmandu since January, she knew it lay on the Himalayan faultline and a big earthquake was inevitable.

But she does not plan to leave, she said.

"The people are all helping one another," she told The Straits Times. "I want to continue documenting what is happening."

nirmal@sph.com.sg