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Swimming out of the rubble

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

Photo: Narendra Shrestha

From the Nepali Press

Girish Giri in, 23 December

When the earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, Ramesh Khatri was having lunch at a Gongabu guest house where he was a waiter for two years.

Unhappy with his meagre income and burdened with the responsibility to look after younger siblings back home, Khatri, who was just 16 then, had quit his job, and bought a bus ticket to return to his village in Dailekh. He had bought new clothes for his mother, brother and sisters.

Khatri had just begun eating when the narrow eight-storey building started shaking violently. Before he could figure out what was happening, a huge concrete pillar fell, and he was trapped under the rubble.

bHe cried for help, spitting out the food that was stuffed in his mouth. He realised two of his friends were also trapped  there. One of them, 14-year-old Pemba Lama, was miraculously rescued alive after six days. The other was rescued four days later, but died soon afterwards.

Khatri was lucky to be rescued after 24 hours, but both his legs were amputated at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. “When I regained consciousness, I felt my feet were itchy,” he says. “I had no idea they were no longer with me.”

When his aging father and mother came to see him, he did not cry and tried to be strong so they would not lose hope, but he was worried about his younger siblings.

Five months later, while attending a training program conducted by the National Disabled Fund (NDF) in Bhrikuti Mandap, he befriended Sandesh Basnet, who had also lost his legs in the earthquake. Basnet’s father was a policeman, was killed by the Maoists. He took Khatri to Mahendra Police Club, which lies just across the Bhrikuti Mandap road.

When Khatri saw the blue water in the swimming pool of Mahendra Police Club, he remembered fondly how he used to swim in the river near his home when he was a child. The club authorities initially did not allow an amputee to swim, but they finally gave in.

“When I jumped off the wheel chair into the swimming pool, I found it difficult to float without legs, and nearly drowned,” he recalls. ‘But it did not take me long to learn to swim with just my hands.”

cBack in the wheel chair, he realised that the earth’s gravity discriminates against amputees, but because of the buoyancy water does not. “You cannot walk if you lack legs, but you can float even if you do not have them,” he says.

One year after the earthquake, Khatri enrolled in Khagendra Nawajiban Kendra, a school in Kathmandu for physically disabled students. When Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association announced the fourth national swimming competition for physically disabled persons in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Nepal Para Olympic Committee, he signed up.

After one month of training, Khatri was ready for the championship on 17 June. He came first by crossing 25 m in just 23 seconds, much ahead of other contestants. President Bidya Bhandari handed over the prize to him.

Khatri’s life changed after becoming the champion, and spent one week in December in Japan where he took more swimming training. Before the earthquake, he had no goal, and was only worried about future of his younger siblings. He now has a goal – a reason to live: he wants to win the gold medal in the next Paralympics in Japan.

Khatri is aware of the bitter truth that Nepal lags far behind other countries in infrastructure. In Japan, he could swim in warm water even when it was cold outside. In Nepal, all swimming pools remain shut in winter, and he can practice only in summer. Disabled persons find it difficult to travel in the city.


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