GUMBA, Nepal – “I don’t understand,” says Chesang Yolmo, “why there’s no help from the government or from NGOs.” He gazes down the road leading out of his village, Gumba, in the Nepalese mountains. “Maybe we’re too remote.”
It has been a year since the 7.9 magnitude tremors that would destroy his community – and a way of living that had remained undisturbed for centuries.
But now the road, strewn with boulders, is a daily reminder of the devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal, including the Sindhulpalchok district where 23 year-old Chesang was born. “We’re still in a very difficult situation. The road was ruined by landslides, and the main bridge was ruined as well. We have to walk for seven hours to buy food and other rations.”
The last time help reached Gumba, which means Buddha in Nepali, was in May 2015, two weeks after the first quake struck. Aid workers brought supply trucks from Kathmandu as far as Katike, six hours’ trek from Gumba, but could go no further due to landslides. Villagers were forced to make the difficult journey on foot, in the rain, to collect the supplies.
One of those distributing aid was photographer Pong Suracheth from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“On the way to Katike I saw a lot of villages that also needed help,” he says. “We had to explain that this truck wasn’t for them, but some people tried to get a ride with us anyway. When we eventually made it to Katike at 4 o’clock, the crowds were so huge it was hard to distribute the relief. Everyone was desperate and trying to take bags without permission.”
The workers tried to isolate those from Gumba, for whom they had brought the bags. “They looked very stressed, but I could feel their strength,” says Pong.
As darkness fell, dinner was served in Katike’s sole surviving restaurant, while villagers and relief workers crowded into tents, and any other buildings that were still standing, to sleep.
The treacherous return journey to Gumba began early the next morning. With the heavy aid parcels on their backs, the group was forced to carve new paths around fallen rocks and collapsed houses. They finally arrived at dusk to find that some of the villagers had moved to safety in a flat area an hour outside of Gumba, while others remained to await a delivery of medical supplies by helicopter the following day. That delivery would save the lives of everyone in the village.
On 12 May, a second earthquake wrought havoc in Sindhulpalchok; Gumba was only spared further fatalities because everyone was out in the fields, carrying medicine from the helicopter. “We’d just moved the third load when we heard the boom,” Pong remembers. “Massive rocks were falling from the top of the mountain, creating smoke like morning clouds. The earth was shaking violently and I couldn’t stablize myself. I was completely stunned for a few minutes – then I noticed that the temple was in rubble, and houses were breaking apart.”
Dazed, people hurried to gather animals and pack up whatever remained of their belongings. They made their way to the flat land to join friends and family in cramped, makeshift accommodation, uncertain when or even if they would be able to return home. One year later, while many have returned home, life has certainly not returned to normal.
“The things we really need are a new road, electricity, a school and a monastery,” says Chesang.
“Also there are no healthcare facilities in the village now, which is hard for children or old people if they get sick, and farmers have no space to store the crops they harvest. They’ve been covering them with tarpaulin sheets, but it’s only a temporary solution. I feel like we’ve been forgotten.”