Nepalis return to quake epicentre to rebuild, stone by stone

BARPAK, Nepal (REUTERS) - Dressed in his brother's old British army fatigues, Mohan Ghale is rebuilding his mother's home stone by stone, after returning to Barpak village, high in the Himalayas, which was demolished by last month's earthquake.

Ghale had been working as a plumber a full day's journey away in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, but with his brother overseas and father away for work, it fell to him to remake the family home at the epicentre of the 7.8 magnitude quake that killed 8,633 people nationwide.

"I came back to rebuild and to help my mother. I had to,"said the 30-year old, who put off the promise of a job in Japan to return to the rubble of his childhood home.

Ghale is one of tens of thousands of his countrymen to have returned - including many of the more than 2.2 million Nepalis living abroad - to remote villages to help with reconstruction.

On the reopened dirt track that takes a tortuous 60km climb to Ghale's home at 1,900m, one village after another lies in ruins in the forested mountains. Here, in the sparsely settled Gorkha region, 440 people died in the country's deadliest natural disaster.

Women are clearing debris to retrieve belongings, men are fixing makeshift iron roofs ahead of the monsoon rains, and the army is constructing a school in Barpak to replace the skeleton of a building remaining on the site of the old.

About half a million homes were destroyed in Nepal by the April 25 quake and a series of aftershocks. The government has estimated reconstruction costs of US$7 billion, a third of the country's GDP.

In the villages, the sheer number of absentees working in Kathmandu or overseas - remittances account for nearly 30 per cent of the economy - was keenly felt after the quake, in the struggle to rescue loved ones and begin rebuilding.

Nepal's labour ministry does not know how many have returned to the country since the quake, but the numbers going abroad to work have fallen to a daily average of 950, down from 1,500 before the disaster.

In Barpak, famed for its fearless Gurkha soldiers, the head of the armed police force's rescue operation, Sudan Acharya, said more than 60 men had returned to the village to help.

It is difficult to know how many are away, but almost every family Reuters spoke with in the village, where 90 per cent of the 1,200 houses were levelled, a male member was away serving in the army or working overseas.

"This village has had a lot more help than other villages,"Acharya said. "Ninety per cent of our work here is done."

Further up the mountain, where the road ends, help has been more limited, and some "lower caste" villagers, those at the bottom end of a centuries-old social hierarchy that classifies people by bloodline, complain of getting too little relief.

Aid organisations are scrambling to fly in supplies before the incoming rains trigger fresh landslides.

Not everyone in Barpak is getting the help they say they need.

Seventy-year old Maya Ghale and her husband lost their small stone house in Barpak when the earthquake shattered the walls and the roof caved in.

Ghale, who is not related to Mohan Ghale, said she needed help because all but one of her children were away in Britain, Korea and India. Her priority now is to build a food stockpile to last the monsoon after the quake ruined supplies. "We want them (our children) to come back, but they are very far away. Maybe we will make a wood house," she said.

Back in the ruins of his mother's home, Mohan Ghale plans to stay for three months before following millions of his countrymen into a life overseas, a trend the International Organisation for Migration has warned would accelerate if more local jobs were not created once reconstruction is complete.

"After, I will go back to learning Japanese in Kathmandu. I still have plans to work there," Ghale said.

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