The Day We Stood Still in Nepal! An Eyewitness Report by Chhatra Karki

It was an experience for a lifetime. For the first ever in my life I felt the earthquake of such a big magnitude. The aftershocks… I lost the count of them. Provoked on April 25, 2015 with epicenter to the West of Kathmandu—a place called Barpak in Gorkha district—the initial 7.8 Richter scale magnitude was followed by 292 aftershocks of 4+ magnitude until May 31, 2015. Kathmandu valley ranks as the 11thmost dangerous and unsafe place in the world from the perspective of risk of Earthquake. However, the days are getting back to normal.

Saturday is a public weekend holiday in Nepal. Fortunate, it is for most alive Nepalese, because the 25th of April fell on that very day. However, we journalists can’t get away with the holidays. Generally, I take a day off on Fridays, but you never know when the work calls. On that Saturday I was taking rest past lunch. All of a sudden, the bed I was lying on started to tremble. This was not normal. Yes, the much anticipated Earthquake finally hit us. In a moment of time the house I have been living in started to sway in such a way that I felt this was it. After nearly a minute of to-and-fro, we managed to get out of the house and went to an open space nearby. Everyone was in awe. Considering the probability of aftershocks, no one dared to enter the house.

The electricity supply ceased. Mobile phone networks were clogged. Internet connections failed. However, I accessed internet via Mobile data network. US Geological Survey (USGS) showed in its website the 7.8 magnitude of earthquake with its epicenter in Gorkha district. I immediately contacted my colleagues. The historical Bhimsen Tower, aka Dharahara has given in to this earthquake. The monument that once stood tall has now been reduced to rubbles. It was a no-brainer—this earthquake has caused a mass destruction. I could see the clouds of debris rising up in the horizon.

I wanted to get to my office as quickly as possible. I live in Bhainsepati and 5.5 km from there is my office of Nagarik Daily, which takes about 10 minutes of driving. Dharahara ‘used to’ be nearby our office! It took me an hour to reach the office only to find it closed. No one was there due to the fear of earthquake and aftershocks. Stream of news started to come in: Hundreds of houses in different parts of the Kathmandu valley have went down. Thousands of casualties…! Disruption in electricity supply ruled the televisions out. Majority of the FM Radio broadcasts came to halt because earthquake hit their stations too.

There lied the debris of Dharahara about 200 m ahead from our Nagarik office. Over hundred casualties were expected in that site alone. Nepal Army and Nepal Police were removing with the dozers the remains of the historically marked Dharahara. Ambulances took over the road of Kathmandu. I came back to the office after reporting and taking the photographs of the Dharahara area.

The massive earthquake had left out Nagarik office building with some cracks. More than our office we were concerned about the adjacent CTC Mall which was cracked badly. This could not be expected to stand another more or less similarly powerful shock due to which it was extremely unsafe to work at our office too. Within the five hours of the earthquake, over a dozen of aftershocks with 5+ magnitudes were felt. The meeting held after the arrival of our Chief Editor decided on the speedy completion of the work so that everyone could head back to home as soon as possible considering the intensity of the shocks. The pages on the publication were reduced to half, i.e. from 16 to 8 pages.

Along with the Gorkha (epicenter), Dhading, Nuwakot, Rasuwa, Sindupalchowk, Kavre, Dolakha among others were the districts much affected by earthquake with high number of casualties and loss of infrastructure. As a Chief of District Bureau, it was my prime responsibility to prepare the news on the loss ensued by the earthquake on different districts.

The electricity supply was down in the affected districts out of the valley. Telephone and mobiles were of no use. The local district news reporters couldn’t be reached out. Anyway, based on the conversation with those reporters that could be reached, plus the conversations with the concerned Chief District Officers, I finalized the news entitled “Extensive Damage accounted in the hilly districts to the East of Epicenter”, which was published the following day of the Earthquake. Most of the Newspapers published post-earthquake shifted the usual ‘Masthead’ down and placed the “Massive Earthquake” news headings on the top.

It was already midnight by the time I reached home after work. My family members and those in neighborhood had already managed the tent for the night. The tent which was manufactured for maximum 10 people was giving shelter to the people as much as twice its capacity. Of course, it was difficult to sleep in such a condition. Aftershocks continued during the night too. Friends from all over the world kept on calling. I sacrificed my sleep that night.

The World Heritage enlisted site of Kathmandu, Basantapur Dubar Square had completely succumbed to the earthquake. This historical area is located at about 600m from my News office. Taking the photographs of Dharahara site and talking with people about the incident there, I headed towards Basantapur Durbar Square with my colleagues. Just as we reached a very narrow alley about 200 m from Dharahara, the next thing we knew was another powerful aftershock of 6.9 magnitude. It shook my heart more than the land beneath us. Looking up, the tall houses seemed like death traps. However we controlled ourselves and managed to return back to the open space inside Nepal Army headquarter compound.


The highway of Kathmandu in this condition after quake. Photo credit: Chandra shekhar Karki

This powerful aftershock added to the damage of the CTC Mall. Due to the critical condition of the adjacent infrastructures, we couldn’t dare enter the office for the work. We then set up the tent on the ground of Nepal Army HQ and began updating the online news portal based on the reports from different districts. Due to the technical reasons, Nagarik and Republica Daily couldn’t be published for the following day.

It was crazy to even think of working from the office building. The tent set up on the open space in Nepal Army’s HQ area became our News Room, at least for a while. Everyone worked from their computers. Nepal Telecom’s internet service was to its least—extremely slow! We managed the power source from Generator as the electricity supply was down. More than a hundred of the newsroom journalists were affected by the earthquake. Some lost their relatives, some had their house damaged and collapsed. The plight of the journalists working outside the valley was even more pathetic. But still they were contributing to the Publication wherever and however they could. Respect!!!

The online news portal of the publication had to be updated from the news room in the tent. The mobile phones of the reporters didn’t work in most of the earthquake affected areas like Sindupalchowk, Nuwakot, Rauwa, and Dhading. Occasional telephone contacts were frequently interrupted. However, the reporters at Gorkha, Kavre, Dolakha among others could be reached out now and then. Based on the conversation with the reporters, I prepared the news and forwarded them to my colleagues who handled the online news portal.

Some days were such that we would be under the tent working from the morning to the night updating the news. Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Need Hierarchy failed here—News became our first priority. Life sustained on mere water accompanied by biscuits. Time flew away instantly while working on the news. We worked from the tent for three days until it rained. We had to option for a safer place now.

 Chhatra Karki

Journalist and Bureau chief, Nagarik daily Newspaper, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Twitter @chhatrakarki

This article was written in June 2015