Namaste, Equality, and Superman

By Eunjin Jeong

My first instinct when I spotted the two women from a small community in Sindhupalchok marching towards me was that I should maybe stop taking photos of their shattered community; perhaps I was rubbing salt in their wounds.

Over the past three weeks they’d seen their lives change forever, their homes destroyed, family, friends and neighbours killed, livelihoods wiped out.

When our eyes met, however, my doubts melted away. One of the women raised her hands, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards: “Namaste”, she said, the customary form of Hindu greeting meaning ‘I bow to the divine in you’. Her pressed hands could not hide a shy smile, her eyes hinting that she was genuinely happy to see a foreign face like mine interested in telling their stories when help is most needed. 

Two women heading to the site of a peaceful demonstration site in Chautara, Sindhupalchok © IOM 2015 May

And I knew exactly what kind of help they were referring to. I’d spent the previous hours in the ward square 2km south of Chautara, our progress to the humanitarian hub through which IOM and its partners have been delivering aid and services since May 4 blocked by a large, peaceful demonstration.

When asked what they are demonstrating about, a young man who spoke fluent English stepped forward and said “We want equal distribution.”

He continued that even though his town was badly damaged by the two earthquakes of April 25 and May 12, the community hadn’t received any relief items besides some rice and tarpaulin distributed by an international NGO. All eyes now are focused on the impending monsoon, which typically begins in mid-June.

“It is far from enough,” he said, looking at the tens of trucks and vehicles waiting patiently for the crowds to dissolve “We need tents. In our current situation, we will be in big trouble when the rain starts to pour. We’ve been protesting since early this morning. We will continue until the government listens.”

If indeed they’d been overlooked, the villagers’ frustration was understandable. Imagine watching from the ruins of your home while day-by-day vehicles rumble by carrying the types of aid you might need; food, tarps, hygiene kits, and other non-food items. Hard to say if they’d been overlooked; maybe in the zeal to push life-saving aid into the most remote areas ahead of the monsoon our neighbours had someone been forgotten? 

A man is looking at a demonstration requesting equal distribution of relief items in Chautara, Sindhupalchok © IOM 2015 May

As the demonstration showed no signs of breaking up, we decided to walk around the town to assess some possible camp sites to accommodate more IDPs and relief goods. We found several good places with flat land with access to the main road.

A 15-year-old Sovan Tamang in Chautara, Sindhupalchok © IOM 2015 May

I met Sovan Tamang on the way back to the car. The 15-year-old in his Superman t-shirt was heading to a health facility to get a typhus injection. Sovan said he was living in open space because his house collapsed during the April 7.8 magnitude quake like 90 percent of other houses in Sindhupalchok district.

He was attending church when the earth started moving. Most of overwhelmingly Hindu Nepal’s roughly 435,000 Christians live in Sindhupalchok and Kabhre districts, and the far west region of the country. Thinking I’d misunderstood I asked if he was sure it was a church and not a temple. Mature for his age, he smiled as if he understood. “Our family has been Christian for a long time. My dad converted when he was my age.”

We talked a bit more until we reached the car and my colleagues told me that we are returning to Kathmandu because the demonstration was expected to continue till late afternoon. Saying goodbye, I asked what I can do for him. If I were teenager in his position I might have asked for some souvenirs from overseas or something similar but instead he just smiled land said. “Pray for us. Pray for Nepal.”