They say the earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April was 7.8 magnitude, but what Rasmila Awal felt on that fateful afternoon cannot be measured on any scale.
Rasmila had gone to a nearby shop before the noon, leaving her two children, 10-year-old Sonia and four-month-old Sonit, at home. Sonia was watching a Hindi serial on the tv and baby Sonit was asleep.
Suddenly the home started swaying violently and cracks started to appear on the walls. Sonia ran outside, but realised that her brother was still inside. She returned, picked up her brother and started running outside. But the house had started to crumble by then, and she could not move her trapped feet. She held her brother tightly against her chest.
A wooden cupboard fell over Sonia and she lost hold of her brother, and she does not remember what happened after that. Rasmila rushed back to see her house coming down, her feet trembled and she wanted to cry but no sound came out.
Rasmila’s neighbours started digging through the debris to rescue the children. Half an hour later, they found a little leg covered with dust. As they dug deeper, they found Sonia who was alive but unconscious.
Sonit was still missing, and although the neighbours dug furiously they couldn’t find him, and assumed the worst. They consoled Rasmila, saying at least one of her children survived. Rasmila had no more tears left. She could not utter a word, and stood frozen.
It was 9PM, and the survivors were preparing to sleep out in the open. Just then, they heard a baby crying from under the ruin of the house. Rasmila knew that it was her baby.
Nepal Army personnel arrived and started digging. Rasmila’s newfound hope slowly ebbed as the soldiers couldn’t find her baby. She could not sleep all night, every second was like a year.
Before dawn the next morning, neighbours started digging again and the soldiers returned. They could now hear the baby’s cry. It was 10 AM when Dipak Rai of the Nepal Army pulled Sonit out of the rubble. He was covered in dirt and was not able to open his eyes, but he was alive and surprisingly unhurt.
Rai cleaned Sonit’s eyes, and dusted his clothes. Sonit was perhaps hungry and started sucking his own fingers
when Rasmila took him in her arms and held him tightly. Suddenly, Rasmila could cry again, but these were tears
Two weeks later, moments after a 7.1 magnitude aftershock rattled Kathmandu yet again, I reached Bhaktapur. Everyone looked scared about the new shaking, but Rasmila was unflustered. She had gone through worse than a mere aftershock. She was breastfeeding Sonit who was snuggled in his mother’s lap.
Amidst all these pain and worry, she smiles, consoles herself and says: “I don’t care what the earthquake damaged. That can be rebuilt again. What couldn’t have been rebuilt was not damaged by the earthquake.”
Sonit Awal’s rescue on the front page of Nepali Times #756, 1-7 May, and Bijay Rai’s photograph of Rasmila with her baby on the front page of Nagarik, 12 May.