Picking up the pieces

For the children who have survived the recent landslide in Sindhupalchok, getting their lives back on track is going to be hard

The children were playing with a derelict jeep parked inside a hangar-like structure in the premises of the Armed Police Force barracks at Lamosanghu, Sindhupalchok. A boy pretended to be a driver. Another played with the door, swinging it, while his friend was  sitting on the glassless rear window. The smallest of them, with a black cap on, checked the flat tyres. And the girls jumped up and down the bonnet, some of them getting on the roof to try to get to the back seats through the windows.

But the children were not at the tin-roofed structure just to romp on the abandoned vehicle. The pebbled site functions as a relief distribution centre for villagers taking refuge from the landslide that devastated villages earlier this month. The rock failure that overwhelms the survivors with its sheer magnitude killed 33 people, with 123 more still buried under boulders bigger than an excavator. More than 66 children are presumed to have died in the landslide. And these children playing seemingly blissfully in the barrack are only 10 of the more than 200 children the disaster displaced.

These children picking up donated clothing items bound in plastic bags knew those who were sleeping soundly when the catastrophe razed the mountain and never woke up. Their own village, Thotneri, narrowly missed being swept down to the Sunkoshi River. But the school most of them went to, Bansanghu Secondary, did not. Neither did 31 of their school mates.

As they walked up to the camp temporarily set up inside another hangar-like structure, the children spoke of the fear the night instilled in them. Thirteen-year-old Sushma Adhikari was at her home in Thotneri when the part of the mountain immediately to her left collapsed. Her father had woken her up and hurried the family to safety. Their house is intact, for now, and her parents and elder sister prefer to die in there if they have to. But Sushma refuses to go back and chooses to stay in the camp.

“I am afraid of the landslide and of the dead. Their spirits roam around,” said Sushma, who lost a close classmate to the landslide. Her body was never found. “Sometimes I don’t believe she is really dead, and sometimes I wonder where death could have taken her.”

Fourth-grader Reshma Adhikari too lives in fear of being hounded by the ghosts of the dead. She goes to a different school, Greenland Secondary, at Lamosanghu, whose bus got wrecked by the landslide. But more traumatising is the fact that she knew 11 of the children who died that night. One of them was her classmate and she watched his body being dug up from the rubble. Like Sushma, Reshma has nightmares in which the mangled bodies haunt her.

These children are also frightened by the stories they hear about the cause of the landslide. They heard that six people killed a cow and ate it, angering the gods into pulling the landmass from underneath the houses. They also heard that some people had killed a naag and kidnapped its baby, leaving the mother snake thirsty for revenge and a bloodbath. “A mata has said that unless we find and kill those people, this tragedy won’t end here,” said Sushma, anxious of the future.

Fortunately for the children, psychologists say that fear, anxiety and nightmares are signs of natural healing. Clinical psychologist Hasina Shrestha warns that we need to worry when children do not display any of these symptoms of trauma or when this process gets interrupted by uncaring family members. Most will display these signs, which could last anywhere from three months to a year.

“Those who are the only surviving member of the family will be the worst affected,” says Shrestha.

So far, only two such survivors have been identified: Subash Tamang and Manoj Tamang, from Mankha VDC, who managed to live only because they had spent the night at a relatives’ place. The effects of the horrors on them will last for much longer, and if the government, which has decided to look after them, does not follow through with psychosocial counselling, the damage could be insurmountable, warn psychologists.

Most children who lost their parents, siblings and grandparents, however, perished with them. As for children like Reshma and Sushma, part of more than 200 kids now living in relief camps—those who knew the dead children—they will soon receive visits from counsellors.

Published: 16-08-2014, The Kathmandu Post