Caught in the crossfire during the war, hospital was in the crosshairs of an earthquake ten years later
Pics: Kunda Dixit
When Maoist guerrillas attacked a Royal Nepal Army unit guarding a telecom tower adjacent to Sindhupalchok District Hospital in Chautara in April 2006, health assistant Hemanta Shrestha nearly lost his family. A bomb had exploded just outside his house, damaging it.
Almost exactly ten years later, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal on 25 April, his wife and children managed to run outside just before their house collapsed.
“I have been lucky twice,” Shrestha says, “my family survived not just one but two deadly calamities within one decade.”
In April 2006, Kathmandu was the epicentre of a pro-democracy movement against the autocratic monarchy of King Gyanendra. It had been under curfew for weeks, and the demonstrations were getting bigger.
Some 70 km to the northeast, Maoist fighters were preparing to attack the Army unit to avenge the military’s attack on Thokarpa of Sindhupalchok a month previously in which four guerrillas were killed.
On the night of 23 April, Shrestha had gone out to meet hospital in-charge Nanda Lal Sikarmi. Just then, he heard a deafening explosion followed by more blasts and intense gunfire. He and Sikarmi hid under the bed from where he tried to call his wife. The mobile phone did not work.
It was dawn by the time the fighting stopped, and Shrestha rushed home to find his wife and two small children still hiding under the bed. A bomb had blown up a portion of their house. “If that bomb had fallen closer, my wife and children would not have survived,” he says.
The Chautara attack turned out to be the last big battle in the decade-long Maoist war. Gyanendra reinstated parliament the next night, paving the way for the parliamentary parties to sign a peace deal with the Maoists.
The government took eight long years to rebuild the Sindhupalchok District Hospital, and the modern new structure had just been inaugurated one year previously when the earthquake struck.
Shrestha was in Kathmandu on 25 April, and his family was still in the same house that had been repaired after the bomb damage ten years earlier. The house collapsed, but his wife and children escaped once again.
The family now lives in a rented house, but Chautara Hospital where he still works will take years to reconstruct.
For the past year, the hospital operated out of tents in the nearby Tundikhel. There is a prefab birthing centre, and the emergency room is a tarpaulin shelter. “We spent the last monsoon in tents,” says hospital in-charge, Sagar Raj Rajbhandari, “we will be spending many more monsoons in tents.”
Like many others, Rajbhandari is frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction, and despite being a government doctor, is vocal in his criticism of the Ministry of Health. He says: “The ministry is virtually paralysed, it takes months to take just one decision.”
The hospital had sought Rs 500,000 to build a stronger temporary structure, but the ministry neither denied the budget nor allocated it. “I have given up hope,” says the dejected doctor, “I am now seeking help from the district administration and non-government organisations, not from Kathmandu.”
The new hospital looks intact, but it has deep structural cracks. On closer inspection, the concrete beams look like they have been built with substandard material. The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC) has not decided yet whether to repair the building, or demolish it to build again. Maniram Gelal of the DUDBC says: “We are still assessing the damage.”
The Maoists had used the nearby post office to attack the Army base. Surya Ghale, a peon at the post office, remembers spending a terrifying night. When he went to see the office the next day, the building was smouldering, and his boss’ chair was up on a tree.
Like the hospital, the post office was also rebuilt a few years ago but was badly damaged by the earthquake. It has a red sticker, and the post office has operated out of a garage for a year. “We did not have a building, so we upgraded the garage and set up our office here,” explains post office chief, Prakash Chapagain. “We want to rebuild the post office, but the Reconstruction Authority does not seem to be in a hurry.”
Coping and hoping, Editorial
Bombed, rebuilt, destroyed again, Om Astha Rai
Victims of war and earthquake, Seulki Lee
Recurring nightmare, Sahina Shrestha
The last big battle, Kunda Dixit
When it rains, it pours, Sonia Awale
Soon, the monsoon, Kunda Dixit