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There’s a patch of Nepal I’d never seen before–it’s called Buspark or Gongabu, (‘cock-field’). Since there’s no guidebook available—I find it inadvertently on my search for Muna’s mother. She’s the woman left alone and brokenhearted when her daughter, Muna, our Amrit student, and husband were crushed in their home 2 weeks ago. “Where is Umm Muna and how can we assist her?” asks an Iraqi friend– my anonymous, irrepressible humanitarian on this blog elist. Sukanya our school director is concerned too—“We might learn more when school resumes and her schoolmates return next week”. Despite saying this, Sukanya, expedient, ever dependable Sukanya, is not someone who willingly delays. She calls Rita, one of our primary class teachers, and within 10 minutes, the three of us set out together on foot. Muna’s family apartment was somewhere near the school– just here, just here. “Just here” turns into my discovery of the now infamous Gongabu.
I’ll soon enter another world although it’s barely a quarter hour stroll from our Amrit school and the famous Mehpi —“empowered-place”– hilltop. This local prominence is crowned by Mehpi temple and surrounded with a modest forest that draws morning worshippers and neighbors seeking clean air in the dawn hours before city smog envelops us, and ahead of local traffic snarling through Mehpi district.
A lane leading northward off the circle through which Rita leads us is new to me. Well before reaching Muna’s neighborhood, it is evident that I’m venturing into an unhappy corner of Kathmandu where life is hard on any day, and still precarious, if not dangerous, after the quake. We reach a point where vehicles are prohibited; even foot traffic is unadvisable. Anyone without a mission here ought to stay away. People seem uncustomarily scarce at this midday hour, and those who are here seem subdued.
An unconvincing and unauthoritative barrier of stones and wires are tangled around a thick bamboo pole lying across part of the road. Rita steps over them boldly. So Sukanya and I follow, leaving a cluster of men among onlookers we’ll pass along the next 200 meters staring at the devastation across the street. A crushed taxi is motionless by the curb and heaps of bricks flank the cleared path we now enter. Frankly I’m ready to turn back, but Rita has her assignment. Confidently she points out corner pillars—“there, up, up further, through that passage there—see, see those cracks at the base, see up the walls, this building, that one too.” Open windows expose limp curtains protecting nothing inside. No posting is needed to tell us all of them are vacant, and although these facades show little evidence of damage beyond those menacing cracks, all these four-story structures are either condemned (red code) or dangerous (orange). Don’t go further, says one bystander. But Rita presses on.
Two soldiers walking towards us turn a corner and proceed slowly into a deserted street, notepads and phones in hand. I prefer to interview them, but Rita again invites me to proceed; Sukanya and I timidly follow. A hundred feet more and we arrive at Muna’s. The gnarled brick and mud mass leans towards us at a 30-45 degree angle, held there against another structure that’s upright but no less precarious. I’m exerting my imagination to understand how even a rescue team would dare to search for bodies here.
Her remains were retrieved the day after, but it took six for rescuers to find her father, (and a cousin who perished here with them). This detail, Rita gathers from a man seated in front of his shop across the way (the only occupied space in his 4 story building). And Umm Mona? “She’s returned; she’d gone to their village in District 3, (far east Nepal, maybe Illam) after the quake. She’d not been normal following the death of her boy 18 months ago. Want her number?” So Rita records it; we’ll contact her later. (I’m not prepared to speak with Umm Muna this afternoon.)
I’m obliged to proceed further only by the resolve of Rita herself. (Sukanya also continues unprotesting, despite her 79 years and aching knees). Not far beyond Muna’s, the street opens up into an ugly, hazy panorama framed in noise, oil fumes, stink and dust. “This is Buspark”, signals Rita, arm outstretched to a wall of corrugated iron sheets. From a gap in the gate, a row of buses is emerging onto the congestion of Ring Road to make their way out of the capital. We step back, but there will be no retreating.
As we wait for a line of 10 or so buses to lumber past us, Sukanya reads the banners painted at the top of their windshields— Biratnagar, Rajbiraj, Janakpur (east Nepal), Hetauda, Birganj, Bharatpur, Pokara, Bhutwal (south and west) –(I’ll check locations and spellings on a map back at Nirmal’s library.)
Ahhh: this is the long-distance bus depot linking the city with Nepal’s far flung corners. So I suppose it’s reasonable that what looms there beyond the traffic on the main artery before us is a migrant slum that’s Gongabu. Hardly an image to compete with those toppled UNESCO-protected grand temples. The Darbar Squares of the ancient Malla cities– Bhaktapur and Patan and Hanumandoka centered in Kathmandu city– together represent the rich ongoing Newar identity and culture. (Our Amrit alumni student 17-year old Ashesh accompanying me at Mehpin a day earlier gently remarked: “We have lost our pride”, adding “our heritage”—in case I didn’t understand).
These sites –Google will find them, but I don’t know about Gongabu; try it– are much documented and appreciated for their art and thereby hold added value in the tourist economy. Already foreign scholars (Gerard Toffin, at C.N.R.S, Paris; Michael Hutt, S.O.A.S., London) and international agencies are writing and conferencing about the urgency and costs of restoration, with commitments already made, I’m told, by Germany and Japan.
Sorry, I digress.
Back to Gongabu where our only guidebook is oral—teacher Rita.
There’s more to come and we three hesitatingly make our way across the main thoroughfare and down a path following the open sewer that is the Bagmati River (!). (I feel sticky all over; behind my mask, my mouth is dry and my breathing difficult; my fingers are swollen.) Here I witness a slum city of hundreds of 6-7 story structures, endlessly packed against each other with hardly a street to distinguish them. Some post names like Pari Guest House and Morang Lodge.
Now I understand where those millions of migrants stay. Either they lodge here temporarily (where many are robbed, beaten or killed for the cash (earnings they have returned with, insecured in their backpacks and suitcases) enroute home from years of toil in Malaysia and Gulf states. Or, this is where their families rent apartments; tenants here are rural migrants who’ve abandoned villages to live as consumers off the cash those brothers, husbands and sons send as remittances from distant jobs. Perhaps some of those lads flying with me on that Etihad Airways flight 13-14 days ago have relatives residing in Gangabu. That is to say, they had.
“They (these apartment slums) are all empty now”. I pause and speak to a pharmacist leaning (masked like me) across his open counter: Where are they? “Their villages; they’ve gone home.”
It’s becoming clear—they left Kathmandu not only because of concern for their village homes. They are afraid to stay HERE, in these hastily build, illegally constructed, cramped and precarious code-defying structures. Whole blocks have collapsed, only sustained partly upright today by the buildings around them. And many perished here—the bodies of some unretrievable. So perhaps those laborers and families fled these death traps. Yes, I think so now.
Gongabu was already familiar to Kathmandu citizens as a migrant slum. It’s well known that these residential blocks were constructed illegally, that this area was known to have been a swamp with soft land (c.f. nearby Machhe Pokari-“fish pond”- is now a dryless place), unsuitable for dwellings, where wells were dug illegally and where utilities are impossibly inadequate. Thus, when other city residents heard about April 25th’s high death toll in Gongabu, they weren’t surprised. Tomorrow, who will dare to raze these structures–the government, the landlords? And who will stop these migrants from re-occupying? And where will these families go when they come back to the city?
Rita and her two sturdy companions return to the main road, skirting buses and trucks, scooters and cars for another wearisome half mile trek until we reach the junction at Machhe Pokari. A beautiful name, no? But I assure you what lays there is a bleak scene, with more scars from the quake.
(Why is there so much dust only 15 hours after last night’s storm and the noisy rain that filled our house’s reservoirs and sent my host rushing to the roof to manage his personally designed water collection system?)
I’ll meet Utpalla this evening; she’s Padma’s and Nirmal’s sister-in-law (living with her son, daughter and husband on the ground floor of this, their family house). Utpalla’s due to return from a more promising mission than mine– to Dharmasatila town an hour from the capital. She and her Shree Shree Kuman (women’s) Committee members had collected funds to deliver truckloads of supplies to homeless villagers (all farmers; 300 of 310 houses collapsed; school is intact). I’ll learn that her 30 member committee teamed up with a Malaysian delegation that arrived in Nepal a few days back with 40 two-family tents and 350 sleeping bags, tarps, food, etc. (Sree Sree Kuman is one of the hundreds of private Nepali associations and ad hoc groups, who, despairing of the government, joined each other and friends across the country and world to carry out emergency relief like this.)
(No one has informed me of a similar government project. Although we can end with a promising note: i.e. the Nepali army and police forces seem to have been outstanding during these urgent, painful days. I’ve heard not a single word of criticism and I’m told they’ve shown themselves totally dedicated, capable, unbiased, and– most significantly–immune from the party politics which has infected government relief obligations and angered so many citizens.)
Tuesday’s agenda: Musician and writer Nirveya kindly agreed to take me on his motorcycle to hard-hit Sanku village just 30 km from here. I know that Sanku residents have received supplies but I need to see conditions for myself. I need to get out of Kathmandu.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Before beginning her journalistic work in the Arab lands, Aziz spent several decades conducting research in the Himalayan areas. Her books include “Tibetan Frontier Families”, “Soundings in Tibetan Civilization”, (both reprinted in 2011) and “Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal” (2001)