In his four days in Kathmandu last week, Karma Bhotia saw a city teeming with now-homeless people growing hungrier and desperately needing shelter from the coming monsoons. Help was notably absent.
Back in Durango, Bhotia talked about the heart-wrenching devastation, to both people and infrastructure, that he witnessed. He’s not proud that his native country was totally unprepared, and has yet to deliver needed aid after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25.
“I haven’t seen this kind of disaster,” he said Friday during an interview at the Himalayan Kitchen, owned by Karma and his wife, Jyamu Bhotia. “I realize, ‘Oh, this is (like) a war.’ And you don’t know where you can begin to help. Everybody needs help.”
During his excursions in the Kathmandu vicinity, Bhotia saw crumbling buildings everywhere, broken and dead bodies and people numb from the quake, its aftermath and its dozens of aftershocks. They live in fear of the next temblor.
After taking a group of Americans on a tour in the Pokhara area northwest of Kathmandu earlier in April, Bhotia stayed to visit his mother and several siblings who live in Darjeeling, India, near the eastern border of Nepal.
Bhotia was having lunch with family and friends at a family house in Pashupatinagar, Nepal, on the Indian border when the shaking began. Although 200 miles from the epicenter, the quake prompted everyone to quickly dash from the house. When his cousin received a text saying the historic Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu had fallen down, Bhotia thought he was joking. Within a couple of hours, the extent of the disaster became apparent.
Bhotia figured he had no choice but to return to Kathmandu for his flight home. But flying from where he was to Kathmandu proved impossible. Through a policeman friend, he learned of a road route that might be open, so he hired a willing driver.
“‘There’s also many places cracked (on the road). You may have to walk,’” he was warned. “And I took the risk.”
The road was broken badly in several places but proved navigable. It also was much less crowded than normal.
When they arrived at night in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, it was completely blacked out. Bhotia picked up luggage he’d left at a hotel there and tried to settle his bill, but employees at the empty hotel told him to deal with it next time he came.
He stayed that night camped outside the house of his friend and former business partner, Lapte Bhote.
With Bhote, he drove around the Lalitpur District south of Kathmandu. They came to a village where, Bhotia estimated, 90 of the 100 houses were “completely damaged.” He was the first who’d visited there with a camera, but he had to tell people he wasn’t a journalist who could publicize their plight, just a visiting American.
“They are just sitting, and they are asking, ‘Well, where is government? We need help.’ And there’s no government help,” he said.
Although he hasn’t lived in Kathmandu since emigrating to the United States in 2000, Bhotia remains inseparably connected through family, friends, employees’ families, former business connections and the Karma and Jyamu Bhotia Foundation. He went to the area where Himalayan Kitchen chef Ram Thapa’s mother and brothers live; their home was rubble, and they were living outside in the rain.
In the same neighborhood, he met a mother of two children whose husband had died just a few months ago. The family was staying in a tiny area under a metal roof because their home was cracked. The mother was in shock.
“I was so broken (hearted), and I gave a little bit of money for her,” Bhotia said. “She couldn’t smile; she couldn’t cry.
“People are numb,” he said, searching for the best word in English. “They don’t respond. They’re still thinking earthquake is coming back.”
In Kathmandu, he had a hard time taking out his camera.
“I feel nervous, and I feel guilty because so many people are lying on the street. And some are crying, and some are sleeping, some begging for help. And so many dead bodies.”
As of this weekend, the estimates were 7,250 deaths and 130,000 houses destroyed.
Where’s the government?
What’s frustrating for Bhotia is the lack of government response. He said there was no sign that leaders or politicians were around damaged areas. Instead, he said, they were tucked away in safe places.
“Sometimes, you need to be present yourself and connect with people,” Bhotia said. “This moment, they have to be in the present, trying to be not everywhere but someplace where it’s most effective.”
They should be telling people, “Don’t worry. We are standing with you. ... We are here for you.”
Kathmandu is in dire straits, but he knows that villages closer to the epicenter are in even worse shape and more hidden from sight. The disparity of wealth is stark, and the poor have no voice and no connections to get help, he said.
With monsoon season coming in the next few weeks; with food, water and shelter in extremely short supply; and with the threat of dead bodies causing an epidemic, the need for help is imminent, particularly among the less fortunate.
“I notice in the end, who pay the price – poor people because their homes are not strong, not good. And so I feel really bad,” he said.
John Peel traveled in October and November with a group of 12 Durangoans led by Karma Bhotia to Nepal on a mission to improve conditions in the villages around Chyamtang, in northeastern Nepal. Chyamtang suffered only very minor damage from the quake.