The forgotten victims of Nepal's earthquake a year on

The Nepal earthquake, killed more than 8,000 and left many more injured. A year on, one of those first on the scene tells Sarah Freeman why the victims of the disaster still need our help.

Nepalese people attend a prayer meeting in memory of people who died in last year's earthquake . (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

When Peter Skelton landed in Nepal exactly one year ago today he was braced for what lay beyond the airport terminal. Part of the UK Emergency Medical Team, which is often first on the ground when disasters strike, he had already seen the human cost of the Haiti earthquake and the typhoon which had swept through the Philippines a few years earlier.

The quake in Nepal on April 25, 2015 was no less devastating. With a magnitude of 7.8, the death toll quickly reached 8,000, the injured totalled 21,000 and even those who escaped without so much as a bruise were left fearful for the future. As he arrived in Kathmandu, Peter’s first impression was of the sea of the tents, erected on a carpet of rubble.

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Similarly stark images were broadcast around the world, but while Peter and his colleagues remained eventually the press moved on. Now, 12 months on from the earthquake which destroyed 900,000 buildings across the country, the people of Nepal are once again desperate to attract the world’s attention.

“A year might seem like a long time, but often in these disaster hit countries the big challenge comes when it is no longer front page news,” says Scarborough-born Peter, who works as a physiotherapist. “Hospitals, short of staff and medical equipment, were quickly overwhelmed and as we know only too well, if we miss people early on in any disaster response, they can slip through the net and never get the expert care they need.

“In a country like Nepal where disabled people often struggle to feel included, it can mean that they struggle to access not just healthcare, but also the education system and it can be incredibly difficult to find employment.”

While Nepal’s streets were cleared of rubble and demolition teams were brought into bring down the most unstable structures, 12 months on, the crisis is far from over. According to one report, none of the homes destroyed by the quake have been rebuilt and many are now without electricity, income or hope.

With the Nepalese government having admitted that another monsoon season will likely come and go before work begins, in the most rural areas many now believe that help won’t ever come. The fear is that the hastily built shelters, which provided a welcome refuge in the days after the quake, will end up being home forever.

“At least while I am here, for a small number of people we are making a big difference,” says Dr Harry Lynch, one of the British volunteers currently out in Nepal. “Even just treating their skin infection is doing something positive. It is shocking that people are still in what look like refugee camps a years later and they don’t see progress or imagine that anything is going to happen.”

Last summer, Britain pledged £70m towards rebuilding projects and the UK aid has made an impact. According to latest figures, the money has helped to restore healthcare services for 5.6m people, but millions pledged by other overseas donors has not yet made it to the most needy.

“One memory that will always stick in my mind is that of a lady who had injured her spine, but who had been sent home from hospital to a distant village,” says Peter, who now works for Handicap International. “We arrived to find her lying in partially destroyed house, her family caring for her as best they could.

“We transferred her to the spinal injury unit where she received the surgery and rehabilitation she needed. I hear she is now doing well, but she was one of the lucky ones. In these kind of disasters, simple injuries often turn into long-term disabilities.

“Disaster responses are always incredibly complicated, which may not always come across on television. Sadly such disasters are on the rise and data shows that while mortality from these catastrophes is decreasing, the overall number affected is increasing. With more people surviving complex injuries, more rehabilitation work is needed.”

According to the Red Cross, four million people in Nepal are still living in sub-standard temporary shelters and while the government promised every family affected would receive money to help them rebuild their homes, most have so far had nothing.

The reasons given for the inaction are many and varied. Some have blamed the constitutional crisis which followed the earthquake and which led to fuel and food shortages in Nepal. Others, however, believe that it’s symptomatic of wider corruption within the country.

Inevitably, as the first anniversary has neared and the spotlight has once again turned on Nepal, the authorities have been at pains to insist that work will begin soon, but no one seems very convinced.

There are, however, some stories of hope. Eight year old Khembro was playing, as she often did, with her cousin, sister and grandmother when the earth began to shake. Fearing the worst, her father, Mangal Dong, rushed back from the farm where he works to find his house had been destroyed. Khembro, was buried underneath the rubble and her grandmother and sister were already dead.

“We had to cremate them there, as no one could help us move the bodies. There were victims in every family. Then three days after the disaster, Khembro was flown to Kathmandu because her left leg had become badly infected.”

Doctors decided there was no other alternative but amputation and while Handicap International offered rehabilitation sessions, Khembro initially struggled to come to terms with her injuries.

“In the beginning, she was very sceptical and refused to do the exercises,” says Sudan Rimal, who like Peter works a physiotherapist for the charity. “Fortunately, she had become friends with another little girl called Nirmala, who had suffered similar injuries. We decided to work with the two young girls together and when Khembro saw Nirmala do the exercises, she relaxed. Little by little, she made enormous progress.”

In October, both girls received prostheses and are continuing their rehabilitation sessions while they stay with members of their family in a basic apartment in Kathmandu. In a few months, it is hoped that they will both be back at school.

“We didn’t think that Khembro would be able to walk again,” says Mangal. “It’s wonderful. Our little girl has changed a great deal. She’s less shy and more vocal, but despite everything, we are worried about her future. Will there come a day when she can take part in farm life again? Will she be able to take care of livestock and work in the fields? What will her life be like when she grows up?”

However, at the moment at least Khembro has enough optimism for them both.

“I want to go to school to learn and become a nurse,” she says. “I want to become a bigger person.”

Handicap International, which last year helped more than 6,000 survivors of disasters, has launched the Every Step Counts appeal to raise essential funds to help disabled and injured people walk again.

From now until July 18, every pound donated to the fund will be doubled by the UK Government. Donations will go to countries where Handicap International provides disabled people with essential rehabilitation care, including Nepal, Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To find out more about the work of the charity and to make a donation go to everystepcounts.org.uk or call 0870 774 3737.