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Nepal's Peaceful Revolution: Citizens Rise Up To Aid Mountain Villages

A bed and breakfast called Yellow House has become the headquarters of a new citizen-run aid group. Above, tarps are stacked up in the courtyard and ready to move out.
Donatella Lorch for NPR
A bed and breakfast called Yellow House has become the headquarters of a new citizen-run aid group. Above, tarps are stacked up in the courtyard and ready to move out.

Nepal's mountains are achingly beautiful. And extraordinarily dangerous.

Since April 25, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake tore through central and eastern Nepal, the most affected were the hamlets, villages and towns in Nepal's Himalayan steep foothills. These have become more inaccessible than ever, places of death, dread and fear.

On May 12, when a massive 7.3 earthquake aftershock heaved across this small country, once again the mountain people were hit the hardest. Entire hills cracked open, rock and earth landslides squashed the remnants of surviving houses, blocked access roads, annihilated entire communities and left the Nepali government and the international community struggling with aid delivery.

A map of Sindhupalchok; the highlighted villages have yet to receive aid.
/ Donatella Lorch for NPR
Donatella Lorch for NPR
A map of Sindhupalchok; the highlighted villages have yet to receive aid.

The monsoons are barely a few weeks away and already heavy rain storms are moving in. Hundreds of thousands of mostly subsistence farmers have no shelter. The food supply and farming tools are buried under their houses. Their buffaloes, cows and goats are dead. In the midst of this chaos, they must cremate their dead.

Despite the chaos, aid groups are struggling to provide help. And citizens are setting up new groups to fill the void, including one that's run out of a bed-and-breakfast in Kathmandu's twin city of Patan.

"There is so much psychological trauma," said Deepesh Das Shrestha, a field officer for UNHCR who'd just returned to Kathmandu from delivering tarpaulins to a village in eastern Sindhupalchowk district. He got back a few days before the large aftershock.

It was a tough journey. From Kathmandu, he took a seven-hour truck ride on a paved road, a two-hour drive on a narrow dirt track edged on a precipice, then crawled on all fours over a landslide before hiking uphill for 45 minutes. These were the first deliveries of food and tarps for shelter since April 25. "People kept on asking:'is it safe to stay here. Look at the crack in the earth? Should we leave?'"

Since the aftershock earlier this week, there has been no cell phone connection or any word from the villagers.

Quake damage has been severe in districts such as Sindhupalchok.
/ Donatella Lorch for NPR
Donatella Lorch for NPR
Quake damage has been severe in districts such as Sindhupalchok.

Tuesday's major aftershock also had a huge impact on rescue efforts.

On Monday, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had stated that the rescue and relief effort was under control and all foreign military should leave the country. The next day, he rescinded his words and asked the international community for more help.

The Nepal army has been at the forefront of rescues. They clear landslides, often with spades, shovels and bare hands. But they only have the manpower to work on the country's handful of main roads. Air-wise they have only 7 helicopters and have relied on the Indian and American helicopters and Ospreys aircraft.

The World Food Program (which is bringing in big loadbearing Russian helicopters) and the UNHCR are among other organizations have been flying in tons of food and tarps. But getting the supplies out of Kathmandu's tiny international airport to a staging area, and then to the area where trucks are being loaded, takes at least a day.

The biggest challenge in Nepal is identifying the places that need the most help, a constantly changing process as aftershocks shake the region. Food, tents and tarps have been accumulating at district headquarters in each region but not getting out, say aid workers. Government bureaucracies are slowing the process. Many well-meaning donors have wanted to send in things such as 6,000 jeans from Bangladesh, mayonnaise or baby clothes. None of these are needed.

Meanwhile, an informal, chaotic and yet highly successful volunteer workforce of Nepalis, accustomed to self-reliance in a country where their government has historically done little for them, has stepped into the void.

You could call this Nepal's non-violent revolution. Among the many participants: a Tibetan business community of carpet makers, the Corporate Club, whose carpet weavers come from Kavre, one of the badly hit districts. This carpet business has been raising funds and buying tarps and rice for thousands of families who've been identified by their workers. The Corporate Club workers drive their own heavily loaded cars and deliver the aid themselves.

The Nepal Villagers Earthquake Fund, founded by the diminutive but steely Shakun Sherchand in connection with local Buddhist organizations, has raised $140,000 and so far provided 10,000 people in farthest areas of Gorkha with food, cooking, oil, sugar and tea. Earlier this week, Sherchand sent her husband and son on an eight-hour hair-raising night drive with two trucks and two tractors and 44,000 pounds of food.

And then there's the Yellow House. The bed and breakfast is now the headquarters for a community-built organization that has a mass following of donors and volunteers.

The group, which calls itself Yellow House, was created on the afternoon of April 25 by Nayatara Gurung Kakshapati, 33, a photographer, and a handful of her friends.

Their impromptu get together has morphed into an anarchic relief effort of Nepalis with a few Westerners. Strategies change depending on the needs of the day. Unregistered, it works outside the government system, connecting with people around the country and identifying each community's needs. "We're like a mushroom," says Ben Ayer, a founding member. "The limiting factor for us is the supply, not the needs."

The Yellow House has recruited via social media and word of mouth and has been overwhelmed with volunteers. Working with Kathmandu Living Labs, which does open source mapping of the quake and aid needs (), Nayatara and her group identify communities in far flung areas and send out tarps and food with its volunteers. It has been so successful that the UNHCR is using their network, to bring tarps to Nepal's hinterlands desperate for help.

The May 12 aftershock has thrown a wrench into Yellow House relief efforts. On Thursday, Nayantara and her group, despite all their regional connections, could not find out if the roads into Dholaka district were free of landslides and if it was safe to send in jeeps or trucks, provided by volunteers and loaded with hundreds of UNHCR tarps they had received late the night before. She scoured maps spread out on the group's large work table and listened to two men who were in contact with people in the area. Yellow House had already sent 1,000 tarps that morning but Dholaka was going to have to wait another day until the road situation would — they hope — become clearer.

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Donatella Lorch
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