The following is from Brian Smith, Executive Director of HAND who recently returned from a body recovery mission in Dolahka, Nepal.
Six days ago I boarded an Indian Air Force helicopter in Kathmandu. I landed in Charikot Dolakha. I was flying on a Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter.
While waiting to meet with the Chief District Officer (like a governor in the US) and commanding officer, I watched approximately 40 relief flights come in and out with thousands of pounds of supplies. I couldn’t help but feel proud when the US Marines would roll in with their Huey’s. One would fly a security circle while the other loaded or unloaded. They would exchange positions with one lifting off for security while the other came in to land. Inside each helicopter were several thousand pounds of USAID boxes which say “From the American People.”
The military base was very busy with helicopters, so at the end of the day I met with Major Rajan, the Commander of Dolakha. I spent the night in a tent at the base along with the refugees from the quake.
The next day the weather had turned bad and very few helicopters were flying. I had lunch with an Indian Army Surgeon and his anesthesiologist. Not long later, I was invited into the officer’s tent for lunch with the Commander and Major. It was my first time eating on the Nepali version of fine china. I had my gear sitting on the helipad should the Indian Air Force come back in. They did, I ran out, grabbed my gear, threw it into the helicopter, jumped in, and off we went flying further north.
The cargo bay is open on these helicopters. Looking straight down at the gorges and looking out the open window to cliff walls just a few feet off the rotor blades keeps the adrenaline flowing.
We landed near the Tibet border to drop off a 50 gallon fuel drum, and then we loaded refugees. We lifted off again and 20 minutes later they dropped me on top of a mountain. I was warmly greeting by the Sargent and taken to a destroyed secondary school that the army was using for a base. Conditions are rough for these guys. We cooked over an open fire inside a partially destroyed school classroom and slept in there as well. We were rocked several times by powerful aftershocks that sent us for the doorway.
There was a bit of a language barrier, so I was not sure exactly where they were taking me. We toured mountain villages that were totally leveled, and talked to the people. I always ask them to tell me their story. A book could be written from their stories and our plan is to share their stories over the next several months on the website.
Early the next morning we climbed into a Land Rover that was trapped on the mountain because of landslides. It took us several hours to make the 3500 vertical foot descent to Singati Bazaar. Singati is like the capital of this region where all trading and products are purchased. Singati is 100% destroyed, as if a bomb was dropped in the middle of the village. It is ground zero, right at the epicenter of the 7.3 earthquake last week.
During our descent in the Land Rover we picked up a number of villagers trying to get down to the military base to get food and tarps. We had 16 people inside the Land Rover, with more on top. To make conditions more difficult, we had a tire blow out. Everyone worked together to change out the tire on a precarious incline.
In these regions I always have armed soldiers with me. When we came through the gates of the military base they said “are you Specialist Smith?” I have a new name now. Major Dhana and Major Raul told me that they had been searching for me for two days and were very worried. There is no electricity in this region because all power lines have been wiped out. Outside of the US Marines, I was the only foreigner permitted into this region.
They showed me where the Marine helicopter wreckage was. They were very sad that two Nepal soldiers from their unit had also been killed in the crash. The last lift off was from the base at the top of the mountain where I was dropped. There was still a pile of USAID supplies that the helicopter dropped on its final mission.
We had a terrible storm when I was on top of the mountain. The rivers were running at flood stage, so we decided to wait another day before going up the valley to recover bodies. There were six bodies crushed by boulders and scattered across the rocks in an area that had been too difficult and dangerous to access. After the first big quake of 7.9, relief trucks and villagers had come down to get aid supplies for their villages. They were almost all killed on their return trip. Somewhere around 500 people (many are still missing).
The next day we set off at first light. We had Nepal Army Ranger Special Forces with ropes and gear. Major Dhana and the Captain were in charge. I was “the specialist.” The mission was extremely dangerous. We traversed numerous landslides with a straight drop to the river below of about 600 feet. In the middle of it all we had two strong aftershocks. Along the way we tried to pull bodies from the rubble, but they were buried too deep. Just scattered clothing and their relief supplies lying on the rocks.
After 1 ½ hours of hard climbing we reached the most grisly scene I have personally experienced. It was a party of 7. One old man was the lone survivor. He told the military that there was so much dust in the air during the earthquake that they couldn’t see the tons of boulders hurdling down the mountain. They ran in circles with no place to go.
I went to work on removing the bodies. I recovered all of their personal effects for the families. They wanted a bone for a Hindu ceremony from one body so I did some quick surgery, opened up his hand and removed a bone connecting his wrist from his knuckle. They also wanted a piece of cloth, so I tore off his shirt front pocket. I was also able to get the rings off of their fingers.
We dug a mass grave under a tree on the side of the mountain. It took us several attempts to find a place where we could dig deep enough. I put two bodies at a time in the tarp pieces. The Special Forces then helped me haul them down a steep boulder field to our grave.
After putting them all into the grave we covered the bodies with heavy rocks and then finally fresh earth. Their final resting place has a beautiful view of the Himalayan valley.
On the way up we passed a relief truck that had 15 people in it. 10 were killed by giant boulders crashing onto the top of the truck. The driver was blown out of the truck by the impact with his final resting place under one of the mangled truck tires. I have never seen such violence. A hotel/bus stop in the middle of town collapsed killing 10 people.
That evening we joined a funeral for 3 boys that had lost their mother when a huge boulder came off the mountain flattening their house. They were in their 13th day of mourning, according to culture. Their heads were shaved and they were wearing just a sackcloth type of robe.
While inspecting the damage in the baazar, I noticed a large section of cliff that had separated about five feet from the mountain, but hadn’t collapsed yet. I alerted the majors to this. It was hanging over a refugee camp which would kill people if it collapsed. They thanked me and said “are you sure that your mission is over? We need your help up here!” I needed to get back to Kathmandu to start our baby mission with my sister. The next day Major Dhana called in some heavy equipment. We evacuated the camp and pushed the cliff off. I was given the honor of riding on the machine while it worked. A giant boulder landed where a house had been occupied the day before and more power lines were taken out. We probably saved some lives.
During my final night I spent it under a tarp with 16 refugees while a major storm rolled through. We all banded together to hold the tarp down in high winds and rain. The villagers insisted on feeding me; one spoon at a time to share their gratitude for the risks that I take to help them. I told them “I am here to help you. We either live together, or we die together.” The Major told me that he has never met a foreigner that would take such risks to help people that he doesn’t even know. I have 3000 more friends for life in the Dolakha region.
We tried and tried to get a helicopter to extract me, but alas, it wasn’t possible, so early this morning I hopped on a local bus that was making a journey to Kathmandu. It took us 10 hours to make the 70 mile journey.
My thanks goes to the Nepal Army. These guys are working tirelessly in difficult conditions. They spend their days digging through piles of rubble to get food supplies and personal belongings of the villagers out. Each house they dig into gives that family a weeks-worth of food. They take tremendous risks every day. Every one of them is doing it for their people. They are also keeping things orderly in these regions that are desperate. I am proud that the US military has been training these guys for the past couple of years. Many of them have served in other hotspots in Africa etc. to support the UN peacekeeping efforts.
Posted by Matt E for Brian Smith. Please consider a tax free donation to HAND