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.
Bill, a 51 year old male drug user from the United Kingdom who has been residing in Bastantapur for seven months said, “I was at the International Kathmandu Tattoo Convention on Durbar Marg with my friend Jabal, a fellow drug user, when the first quake struck. The convention was inside a big five star hotel with very little natural light. The ground started to shake and immediately the lights went out- the entire floor was plunged into darkness. People started to scream and there was a stampede for the exits, Jabal was terrified and I was afraid of being trampled by the huge number of people trying to run to safety. I grabbed Jabal and pulled him under a table, I was hugging him and put his head on my shoulder. I was stroking his head, trying to reassure him, and told him, “Don’t be scared brother, if we die, we will die together.” Before the power went out, the last thing I saw was a giant chandelier above us swaying perilously and looking as though it would unanchor and fall down directly on top of us. After the quake subsided we made our way outside and were very relieved to see that our friends from the convention had survived. Jabal wanted to go home immediately to check if his mother was OK. As it was Saturday, which is Nepal’s weekend holiday, his mother wasn’t at work, and he was worried that his house may not have survived the quake and that his mother may have been trapped inside. We began to run towards Ohm Bahl, there was dust everywhere, building were shattered, rubble was strewn and we passed many injured people. I told them to stay in open spaces and to be aware of after-shocks. When we reached Ohm Bahl, we passed the methadone dispensary which Jabal and I both access. The clinic was OK, but houses behind the clinic were totally destroyed. We heard a woman’s cries for help from under the collapsed building and I saw some of my fellow service users starting to move rubble to try to rescue the woman. Jabal and I began to run through the narrow street, through the clouds of dust towards his house. When we reached his home, we saw his mother was outside crying and that his house was still standing. I left them alone and returned to my methadone dispensary to help with search and rescue efforts.
As I reached my clinic, I saw that many more service users were helping to move the collapsed houses and attempt to rescue the people trapped inside. I was safe, and I couldn’t not act to help others. Ravi, the manager of the methadone clinic had organised tools, safety gear and was helping to direct rescue efforts. I grabbed a helmet and began to remove the rubble. We found a new born baby, the child’s mother was fortunately spared being crushed in the devastation. When she saw her baby, she grabbed it and held it to her breast. She was sitting in the sun and kept the baby clutched to her for many hours. The earthquake happened at midday, local time, and it look nearly twelve hours to remove everyone from the collapsed buildings. I think one person was rescued, but seven people lost their lives.
The only good thing to come out of this horror was seeing how the drug user community responded to the situation. When I arrived, many of the clients from the methadone clinic were digging with their hands to remove people from the buildings. There were tools, but not enough for everyone. There were a few police standing around doing nothing, they were finally inspired to action- I think from a sense of shame seeing that some of this area’s most notorious junkies and dealers were actually doing something to rescue people, whilst they were totally inactive.
After a few hours, I needed to take a break, I was emotionally exhausted. I walked towards Durbar Square to look for my friends and I saw Agni, another drug user. She had also been helping to uncover the bodies of people trapped under the wreckage. I couldn’t believe what had happened to Durbar Square. It was like cruise missiles had taken out the heart of old Kathmandu. I was wearing a red first aid vest and helmet which Ravi gave me to use during relief work. Agni told me what had been happening in Bastantapur and Durbar Square and I told her what had been happening in Ohm Bahl. As we were talking, a guy came up to us and told us that he had stepped on a nail and asked if I had access to tetanus injections. Then another guy came up and asked us the same thing. Agni said that there were many upturned bits of wood with protruding rusty nails which had fallen off the temples and that many people, including herself, had stepped on nails during rescue efforts. Agni and I promised to do what we could to being back tetanus injections. We ran back to Ohm Bahl down back streets, through scenes of absolute destruction, to see if there were any tetanus vials in the first aid kit, but here was none. We looked for open pharmacies, but by this time, there were no shops open at all. Someone advised us to go to Bir Hospital, so we ran there and saw some friends from the methadone clinic there. One friend had injured relatives inside the hospital. The hospital was in total chaos, I have total respect for the staff there who were absolutely overrun by casualties. There was blood all over the ground, everywhere we looked there were discarded surgical gloves and wound swabbing. People were outside the hospital on stretchers in the hot sun, there were people being brought into the hospital by taxi, the wails of emergency vehicles, and so much dust in the air. It reminded me of media images of hospitals in Gaza following Israeli strikes in occupied Palestine. The pharmacies near the hospital were still open, but none had tetanus amps. Agni and I went back to the main hospital pharmacy but they wouldn’t give us any to take away. They told us to bring in the people who needed the jabs. I yelled at them that the people who needed them were digging bodies out of the rubble, but they just told us to bring people in..Somewhere along the way I fractured my rib. ”
** 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).