Illicit drug users were amongst the first to participate in rescue efforts following the immediate aftermath of the severe earthquake which devastated Kathmandu’s inner-city world heritage site, Durbar Square, and its surrounding neighbourhoods, Basantapur, and Ohm Bahal. In addition to participating in efforts to rescue local community members buried under collapsed houses, shops and temples, drug users also administered first aid and comfort to the injured, and cleared rubble from areas heavily impacted by the magnitude 8.1 earthquake, which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 8000 people across Nepal. Similarly, drug users have been active in leading the clean-up, health and sanitation awareness and community- leadership campaigns around the neighbourhoods.
Agni, a woman drug user who also resides in Basantapur said, “When the earthquake happened, I was in an internet cafe on Freak Street in Basantapur. I have been in earthquakes before, so when the earth began to move, I immediately knew it was an earthquake. I shouted out “This is an earthquake”. The guy at the internet cafe immediately ran outside, I yelled to everyone in the building to hide under the door frame. As I was moving toward the door, I lost my balance and was thrown backwards, my body hit an old woman who was knocked to the ground. I regained my balance as another major tremor occurred. This time I was thrown into another direction, fortunately, I landed in a chair. I pushed myself up and ran to the doorway. A guy tried to leave the building, but I stopped him and yelled “Don’t go outside, things will start to fall- just stay here.” At that very time, tiles from the roof the building began to fall and were smashing on the ground right outside where we were. Shrapnel was flying everywhere and because we were all huddled in an open doorway, some of it cut our legs. When the earth stopped spasming, I ordered everyone to leave and told them to go to Durbar Square, which is a huge open space. As we stepped outside I saw a massive plume of dust coming up Freak Street from Ohm Bahl. People were totally panicking and running in different directions. For some reason, I wasn’t panicked at all. My mind was working very fast and I knew exactly what to do. My only reaction was to ensure that everyone was in a safe place. I began to shout at people to move to Durbar Square and began directing them up Freak Street towards safety. The old woman I inadvertently knocked over in the internet cafe was just standing in the street outside the internet cafe, her face was white and eyes were huge, she was in catatonic shock. I yelled at her, “Go to Durbar Square, but be careful of things falling, stay in the middle of the street.” She couldn’t move or speak and just grabbed my arm, looking terrified. I could see that she wasn’t going to move to safety and I thought, “I can either slap her face or move her myself”, so I put my arm underneath her and began to drag her up the street towards the Square.
When we reached the Square, she began to focus her eyes, I told her “You’re OK, just stay here.” Fortunately, I had several bottles of water in my bag, so I forced her to drink some. I sat her down in a place which was free from falling debris and told her to be aware that there would be aftershocks. I saw that Durbar Square was destroyed, all the temples were in ruins and had collapsed upon themselves. The temples are steeped and some are quite high, many people sit on the steeped stairs of the temples, drinking tea and talking. I knew that there were people trapped underneath the bricks and pillars. I was driven to assist. Even though by this time it was only about five minutes after the earthquake, the entire Basantapur community was gathered in Durbar Square- there were hundreds of people looking horrified and standing around. I began to move through the crowd towards the midst of the destruction. As I was moving through the crowd I saw many of my friends, they grabbed me and hugged me. Some were praying, others were just silently rocking back and forth, others were totally covered in dust from the debris, some people were crying, others were looking for their families and friends and were frantically asking everyone if they had seen their loved ones. I gave many people hugs and insisted that they drink water.
When I got to the scene of the most destruction, I saw a cycle rickshaw driver who was buried under the rubble of a collapsed temple. The upper half of his body was showing, but from the waist down, he was totally buried under bricks and large bits of wooden pillars. There was a guy helping to remove the debris, so I ran over and we began to dig the rickshaw driver out of the detritus. We didn’t have any tools, we just started pulling off the wreckage to free him. A few people joined us and after some time we all managed to clear the rubble away and lift him out. His body was severely bruised and scratched, but with support, he could stand up, so I don’t think anything was broken. His face was totally white and he was bleeding from his mouth. He just wanted to get away from the area. Many of the shops in the area had already closed, but I saw one guy who was still pulling down his shutters, so I pulled the rickshaw driver over to the shop and asked the shopkeeper for more water. He looked at the rickshaw driver and said, “Just take what you need”. I gave some to the rickshaw driver and grabbed as much as I could carry with the intention of distributing it to people who needed it. When I looked around, the rickshaw driver was gone. There was so much red dust in the air from the all the old temple bricks that it was difficult to see too far.
I looked to my left and saw that the temple outside the house of the living goddess, the Kumari Devi was completely collapsed. I often sit on the steps of that temple and I knew that on a sunny Saturday morning, it would have been full of people. I ran over to the temple and saw my friend and peer, Upesh, was also moving towards the temple to help. As we reached the temple we saw that the small cake shop we usually drink tea at the mornings was completely buried under the collapsed temple. We climbed up the rubble and heard a woman crying out for help. We know the people in that shop, it’s a tiny hole in the wall, in a really old building, which was rife with cracks and still-falling plaster. The ceiling in there is really tiny, you can only really duck your head in there, its not possible to stand. There is always the shop matriarch inside, along with other women from her family, so we knew that people from that shop would be trapped under the rubble.
We both climbed atop the mess and began to pull bricks and rubble from the corner we could hear the cries coming from. There were a few other people there too. After a little while more people joined in and we made a human chain to remove debris- people passing bricks, wooden pillars and cement rocks to each other. We didn’t have any tools and we were moving everything by hand. We were all scratched, bruised, bleeding and our hands were full of splinters. There must have been a fire underneath the temple, because there were tendrils of smoke emerging from underneath the rubble. Later I realised that the soles of my shoes were partially melted and there was tar melted into my hair, but I didn’t notice it at the time. There was so much smoke, fine particles of debris and dust in the air, initially no one had face masks on because we were all yelling to each other. Even though we were speaking different languages, we all intuitively knew what was being said and we worked together in synchronicity. At the time, there were no teams of rescue workers on the scene. I saw a few police standing on the ground, but they were totally useless, they weren’t even directing people to open areas, they were just watching us work. Whilst we were removing things, the first of the after-shocks hit. The rubble we were standing on began to shake and many bricks and detritus fell down from the pile. Some people ran off the pile of rubble, but others kept working, totally focused on trying to rescue the people crushed in the rubble.
After some time, the cake shop keeper’s son ran over and was crying, men from the rescue effort had to hold him back because he was tearing at the ground and was getting in the way of removing his mother. She called out that she was OK, but he didn’t stop crying. Someone asked me to take care of him, I suppose because I was the only woman on the scene at that time, so I took him out of the way and we found more water. I hugged him until he calmed down; his sobs were heaves on my shoulder. His friend came along and also calmed him down. When I thought he was OK, I went back to the rubble to continue digging people from the rubble. By this time, many other people had joined in, both Nepalese and international people. After sometime the first body was removed. The woman was OK, but badly bleeding and also in catatonic shock. The second body removed was in a terrible condition, the old woman was dead. Half of her scalp had been torn off and her skull was totally exposed on one side of her head- it was crushed in places. Her body had the sheen of death- she was grey and totally limp. Next a small child of approximately 5 years was removed. An Italian guy with facial tattoos, dreadlocks and many piercings who had been helping to remove the rubble and was perched atop the wreckage turned white and began to vomit when he saw the child’s body. I saw him swaying and thought that he might fall off the rubble pile- it was about ten meters off the ground- I climbed over to him, gave him water from my bag and poured it over his head and helped to take him off the rubble pile. I made him sit down on the steeple of another smaller temple a few meters away, which was only partially destroyed. As we were sitting, we saw the fourth body being removed from the wreckage. Upesh was directing the operation. She was an old woman, I think the matriarch of the cake shop. She was also totally limp and grey, and didn’t survive.
That’s all I want to say about this right now. I only want people to know that in the immediate aftermath of this natural disaster, the police and military were totally redundant and that it was civilians who responded to this emergency. Similarly, just as drug users in our area were the first to respond to the crisis, in the days following 25 April, it was society’s most marginalised people, including lower caste people, who were the most active in engaging in relief efforts and distributing food and water, for which they had raised funds themselves. But I doubt that will be reported in the media.”
** Please note that the names of drug users have been changed to ensure privacy. The community in Nepal know who you are and have the upmost respect for you. Similarly, there were many more drug users in Kathmandu who participated in front-line rescue and relief efforts; however, for lack of space and means of digital communication (phones, access to phone credit and limited internet access), these stories have been omitted (for now).