On Saturday, Nigam Khanal, 27, was at the Delta Brunswick Hotel in Saint John attending a health and safety conference. On Sunday she would spend hours trying to find out if her mother was safe from the largest natural disaster Nepal has seen since the 1934 quake that killed over 17,000 people.
Khanal, a graduate student at UNB, is originally from Kathmandu. When the earthquake stuck, she immediately thought of her family, frantically trying to find out anything about their safety.
“I was panicking and shaking,” she said.
Khanal took to social media, using it as an alarm, she called out to her friends on Facebook. It was her first source of information— with all its inconsistent, quickly updated information— Khanal was desperate to find anything she could about her family.
“The first thing I did was took my phone and dialed my mother’s number. But I couldn’t because I don’t have international calling.”
Prashamsa Gharti Chettri, Khanal’s roommate who is also from Nepal, was able to get in touch with her brother within a half hour, who told her everyone in her family was safe.
“It was the worst half hour in my life, not being able to know,” she said.
Khanal knew her brother was safe after he posted some photos of damaged buildings in Nepal. But she still wasn’t aware of her mother, Urmila Khanal, who works in the village of Syabrubesi. Khanal managed to buy credits to make the call.
“I couldn’t hear her because of a cross connection, I could only hear crying and yelling,” she said, “It was horrible, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.”
When she later received word from her cousins through Facebook that her mother, in Syabrubesi, and the rest of her family, in Kathmandu, were safe, she learned they had been sleeping outside for two nights amid tremors and pouring rain. She knew her mother was alive, but that was all she knew.
“It was a relief,” she said, “But I wasn’t getting any other updates from six in the morning to like three in the afternoon. My mom was in an area that is really close to the epicenter.”
She would eventually learn, just before the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, her mother had been staying at a small hotel. Minutes after she was evacuated, the hotel crumbled. The nearby village of Mankha was completely wiped out by a landslide, killing 150 people.
It wasn’t until early Sunday morning, Khanal received a phone call from her mother, who was living in a tent, and reassured her she was safe.
For Nigam, it is a struggle for those outside of Kathmandu. Rural areas, like where her mother works, are sparsely populated— and lack phone connections and even electricity— they are often left to fend for themselves. She says she knew her family in Kathmandu were all right because the bulk of information she was getting pertained to the situation there.
“We knew a lot of people are dying, and where most damage had happened, but where my mom was there was no information.”
The death toll has since risen above 4500.
“I think a lot of people are still trying to assess the situation and a lot of relief is being limited to Kathmandu,” said Khanal.
Khanal stresses aid needs to spread to small villages closer to the epicenter. Organizations, namely, Red Cross and Oxfam, Khanal said, are providing search and rescue operations and taking donations.
“There is not much relief work being done,” she said, “It is very important in rural areas where people are very poor and the geography is worse— people’s homes are made of mud.”
“That’s where the rescue is needed,” she said.
A Trivia Fundraiser for Nepal relief efforts is being organized at the UNB Grad House in Fredericton May 7 at 7:30pm.
Peter Johnston is a member of the NB Media Co-op.