Reflections on the Anniversary of Nepal’s Earthquake

Dipika and Anuz Working on producing a radio program in the garden of BBC Media Action's Country Director's residence in Nepal on May 12, 2015, immediately after the second strong earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

Dipika and Anuz working on producing a radio program in the garden of BBC Media Action’s country director’s residence in Nepal on May 12, 2015, immediately after the second strong earthquake. (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

April 25 is a date which Nepalese will not forget. In my case, April 25 is the date which brings me both joy and sorrow.

April 25, 2014 is the day when I landed in the U.S. for the first time with my wife Dipika Shrestha. We both left exciting careers in Nepal and, having won the green card lottery, decided to try our luck for a while in New York City.

A year later, on April 25, 2015, a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. We were all set to celebrate our first-year anniversary in the U.S. with friends, but the day turned ugly. Our country suffered a massive catastrophe that killed more than 8,000.

It was around 4 a.m. New York time on April 25 that I learned of the strong quake in Nepal. Immediately after that I started making several attempts to get in touch with my family via phone calls and social media. Thankfully, our families, mine and my wife’s, were not hurt. We were desperate to go back to Nepal and do something, and we believed our experience in media could help us serve the public there. When we had left the country a year earlier, I had given up a job as prime-time news anchor/producer for News 24 Television, a well-regarded national news channel in Nepal; my wife had left her job as project associate and humanitarian lead at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity. Now, in the wake of the earthquake, we felt a strong urge to return home to Nepal and help.

Two days after the disaster, my wife received an email from her former boss Jackie Dalton, senior producer-trainer for BBC Media Action. Jackie wanted to know if both of us could immediately fly to Nepal and join the team in Nepal setting up a daily 15-minute emergency radio program for BBC Nepali Service.

In her last project at the BBC Media Action Nepal office, Dipika had worked on developing an emergency communication plan and training journalists on how to communicate effectively with the affected population during man-made or natural emergencies. As a journalist, I was one of those who had participated in the intensive three-day training workshop on Lifeline programming in May 2013. Now was the time to put all that we had learned and knew into practice.

Devastation in Sindhupalchowk, the region of Nepal most heavily damaged by the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

Devastation in Sindhupalchowk, the region of Nepal most heavily damaged by the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

Media reporting during hours of crisis should be different from reporting during normal circumstances. Lifeline programming means reporting for the affected, rather than the usual mainstream reporting about the affected. Victims require information just as they need food, clothes, and shelter – information on who to ask for help, what to avoid, what to eat, how to eat, how to stay safe. Basic and accurate information plays a crucial role in helping people, quelling rumors and preventing unwanted chaos.

It was as if Jackie in London, millions of miles away from New York, had heard us. Her email was a huge morale boost for us to go and volunteer in Nepal. Both of us were ready to go. But there was one big hurdle. What about my work here? I had just managed to get an administrative job as a visa consultant at Cox and Kings Global Services after seven months of odd jobs.

I spoke to my boss and surprisingly he granted me unpaid leave. We flew to Kathmandu on May 1 and landed in the early morning of May 3, 6 a.m. (local time). From the airport, we went directly to the residence of BBC Media Action Country Director Mona Laczo. Because the organization had felt that it wouldn’t be safe to work from the office that was located in the Lalitpur district of the capital city – where the building is surrounded by tall buildings – her two-story home with a big garden had been turned into a temporary office.

With a team of five, we immediately started working on the production of a 15-minute daily radio show that would begin broadcasting the very next day. We named it Milijuli Nepali (Together Nepal). In the show we would be giving practical tips to listeners about maintaining personal hygiene. During our three-week stay in Nepal, I also traveled to the most affected district, Sindhupalchowk, northeast of the capital. Interviewing the people there, I was surprised to see that they were still hopeful that things would improve. I saw pain and suffering in their eyes but that seemed small when compared with the intense degree of the chaos.

In Sindhupalchowk we finished up interviewing at midday under the scorching heat of the sun. My transport coordinator and I had to face a drive of nearly five hours back to the office, and we needed to travel before dark. We were hungry as we had walked among villages to interview many of the men and women whose houses had been destroyed and were now living in tents, barely surviving on limited food supplies. Aid distribution was chaotic.

Still, they offered us lunch. My transport coordinator and I politely refused, feeling awkward. But they insisted, saying we were their guests and it was their duty to serve us food. After a while, we relented. I felt their smiles and compassion in the food I consumed. They even offered us freshly plucked cucumbers.

Anuz Thapa interviewig residents of Sindhupalchowk, the region most heavily damaged by the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

Anuz Thapa interviewing residents of Sindhupalchowk, the region most heavily damaged by the earthquake (Photo courtesy of Anuz Thapa)

During the three weeks my wife and I spent in Nepal, I interviewed hundreds of people. Some had lost their family members, some had lost their houses, but still their faces had the ability to hide that sorrow.

Before migrating to the U.S. in 2014, I had traveled the length and breadth of the country as a reporter and I knew that the Nepalese have a big heart and always have that typical warm smile on their face. But I never expected that even amid this huge disaster, they had the ability to smile and be hopeful for their future.

We migrated to the U.S. to explore the world. Dipika, for her part, came here hoping to learn about new cultures in this very rich diverse community, and she’s doing freelance work and wants to gain more skills in humanitarian affairs to apply at home. For me, the goal has been to explore the media field from the perspective of the West, and the U.S. seemed the best place to do that. I will attend the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism this fall, and the program should help hone my journalistic skills.

I always intended to return back to Nepal and do what I love to do most – be a journalist. Now, though, after the earthquake, both of us are more committed than ever before to returning. The urge to serve the Nepali community at home with the skills we have is simply overwhelming. I know I didn’t get to play a big role in serving the community in Nepal after the earthquake, but I am glad that at least I had the opportunity to go back and do what I love the most. The BBC project was so important, and so engrossing, that I didn’t even have the chance to see my family for three days after we landed in Nepal.

Now, on the anniversary of the quake that did some damage to my country, I am thinking once again, and more intensely, about when we can return. I know it will take time. I have to finish what I came here for – a post-graduate degree and a few years of mainstream experience in this land of opportunity.

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