During the last week time to write has been a little scarce – our three strong expat nurse team, (Anne, Mariko and myself) has been rotating days out on the helicopters, leading the explos to still unvisited areas, running mobile clinics and taking days in the office to restock our depleted kits and plan the coming days.
The days out in the mountain villages have been simultaneously exhilarating – first time in a helicopter! - and yet a saddening and sobering experience. Many villages in the area to the north-east of Kathmandu have been almost entirely flattened, stone houses and animal shelters destroyed, people’s precious food and grain stores in the remote areas buried under rubble.
Despite the hardships they are facing, the people wherever we have landed have met us with overwhelming welcome and generosity – smiling and namasting to us, offering us tea from their scant reserves during our longer clinics and in some of the northern most villages close to the Tibetan border where the Buddhist traditions are predominant, giving us the white silken khata scarves woven with mantras as a sign of respect and blessing.
MSF Explo team member Angelo says namaste and receives a prayer scarf from the village leader after distributing tons of roofing materials in Gorkha District, Nepal on May 7 2015. © Brian Sokol/Panos
I’ve been to so many villages now, maybe 25 in a just a few days of leading explos and doing clinics, but there are some small fragments of stories that really stand out in my memory:
A wiry boy of about 18 told us of how he had carried a severely injured woman from his village for three hours over broken paths and landslides to reach an accessible road to get them to a hospital.
A small village totally cut off by enormous landslides visited by Anne’s team, who thought they were the only ones to have experienced the earthquake and were weeping and horrified to learn that enormous other areas were similarly destroyed.
A little boy who told me in broken English and with wide eyes and swaying motions of his arms of how he had seen the houses and trees “dancing this way and that way” during the earthquake and how his house was now all broken, so he was sleeping with 20 other people in a tiny tarpaulin shelter.
A shy, bright-eyed nurse whose health post had been crushed taking her medical supplies with it and who had scavenged enough things to do only a few small treatments since, who was delighted to receive a big bucket full of basic drugs and dressing materials which would enable her to treat her community more effectively.
The rumple-faced old man who knelt, gnarled hands to the ground, chanting “Ram, Ram, Ram” (“God, God, God”) when a strong aftershock shook the terraced field we were standing on, and stayed kneeling for many minutes afterwards, clearly deeply traumatized by the reliving of the initial quake.
MSF distributes tons of roofing materials in Gorkha District, Nepal on May 7 2015. MSF provides material to families so that they have the opportunity to rebuild their homes. The teams also distributes blankets, hygiene and kitchen kits by helicopters to remote villages. © Brian Sokol/MSF
There is hardly time to process all of this at the time. It's hard to run a mobile clinic out of the side door of a helicopter like a bizarre car boot sale, rummaging in boxes for drugs, listening to our Nepali doctor’s translations of sicknesses and symptoms, triaging and trying to do crowd control all simultaneously is an intense and distracting business.
The flights between clinics are scarcely less distracting. Despite having visited Nepal twice before I have never had the privilege of seeing it from the air until now – and what a breathtaking country it is from this new perspective. The monsoon is approaching so the building clouds obscure many of the more distant snow peaks, but some are still visible in the background, pristine white peaks stark against the blue sky.
Helicopter exploration © Brian Sokol/Panos
In the foreground directly below us are the sculpted and curved terraces of paddy and maize fields, their walls following the contours of the hills more faithfully than any human hand could possibly draw onto a map; the lower fields a rich velvety green where the water sources are closest, fading to dusty pastel shades of ochre and umber the higher we climb where the crops are half a season behind with the change in altitude.
In some places the layered fields bring to mind the layers of a puff pastry that has been pulled apart – and from a height they look as delicate and as brittle, especially where the smooth carved contours have been ripped open by the ugly grey scars of landslides – scars in more ways than one. Even if no-one was injured or killed by these rock falls, they have fractured the few paths that link the remote villages together; also the ruined land and crops beneath them represent someone’s livelihood and security for the coming seasons in a place where subsistence farming is still the norm rather than the exception.
The two pressing priorities on the mind of the communities that we have visited are shelter and food, in that order. Already it is raining heavily every few days. By the end of May this will become every day and the weather conditions then will make flying regularly impossible. Our current goal is to assess as many of these communities as fast as we can before this happens.
Our logistics team is working overtime to follow in the footsteps of the explos that us medical teams do to distribute huge quantities of blankets, shelter kits, hygiene kits and high energy biscuit rations before the change in seasons.
My only hope is that we can reach everyone that needs it in time.
Distributing supplies including soap, blankets, metal roofing and tarpaulin in Gorkha District, Nepal. May 7 2015 © Brian Sokol/Panos