‘The chaos that unfolded around me was completely overwhelming’

Lizzie Lake, a former child protection social worker in London, reflects on trying to help in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake

A woman collects her belongings from her destroyed house near Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Zuma/RexShutterstock

By Lizzie Lake

On Saturday 25th April an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Nepal causing widespread devastation. Over 8,600 people were killed, 23,000 injured and 1.6 million homes were destroyed. It was the worst natural disaster to hit Nepal in over 70 years.

I was walking in the hills, south of Kathmandu when the earthquake struck. I had just reached the top of the hill and was standing looking out over the whole valley when I heard a deep, grating, grinding noise coming from below.

The ground started shaking

It took a few seconds to realise what was happening. The trees around me starting moving from side to side at such speed that they turned into a blur. Then the ground started shaking so violently and erratically – up and down, side to side – that I quickly ran back from the edge where I had been standing.

But, the force of movement was so strong that I fell and had to stay down, holding on to the ground.

I fell and had to stay down, holding on to the ground

As I looked across the valley we could see plumes of dust rising as buildings came crashing down and in the village that we had just walked through we heard sounds of shouting and screaming as buildings shook and collapsed all around. The earthquake probably only lasted about 45 seconds but it was the longest 45 seconds you can imagine!

Trying to be useful

As social workers, “helping” is what we do but the scale of the disaster and the chaos that unfolded around me was completely overwhelming.

It was difficult to know where to start. The first few days after the earthquake were spent trying to be useful. I helped move debris from collapsed houses where people were hoping and praying that family members trapped inside were still alive, drove supplies (drinking water, rice, medicine) around the city to temporary camps that were popping up with displaced people and looking after the staff and their families who work in our office.

But, despite all of this, I felt like a dog chasing its tail – utterly helpless and completely ineffective.

Lizzie Lake in Nepal before the earthquake

Lizzie Lake in Nepal before the earthquake

I have been living in Nepal for two years, running a small social business and working with grass roots organisations on anti-trafficking projects. In that time I must have had thousands of conversations about earthquakes. Everyone knew the country was ‘due a massive one’ and knew the predicted death toll was in the hundreds of thousands.

Unprepared

Despite this neither the government nor the international agencies working here were prepared to deal with a disaster of such magnitude. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the response to the earthquake was woefully inadequate, painfully slow and completely chaotic.

The response to the earthquake was woefully inadequate, painfully slow and completely chaotic

I have seen first hand how subsistence farmers lost crops, which will make feeding their families and communities even harder over the coming months.

I have spoken to families who have lost their homes and everything that was in them. Rebuilding takes time, money and resources all of which are in short supply.

Waiting the arrival of the monsoon

Many schools have been damaged or destroyed completely which has meant children are out of education and may continue to be so for months. On top of all of this people are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the monsoon that will appear any day now bringing not just rain, but landslides and disease.

These communities are resourceful and will do what they can to support themselves. But the struggle simply to survive and meet the most basic needs of their families in the wake of such calamity cannot be overestimated.

However, perhaps the most worrying aspect is the growth we are already seeing in trafficking. The emotional impact of the disaster, the food shortages, the lack of shelter and the looming poverty are all perfect conditions for trafficking to thrive.

Trafficking on the increase

In a disaster situation, when everyone is out for themselves, there will always be people ready to take advantage of other people’s misfortune.

Before the earthquake trafficking of women and children within Nepal and across borders was a growing problem. In the two months since the initial earthquake we know that traffickers are already making their way into the communities who have been most affected by the disaster and luring girls away from their families under the promise of a better education and a better life.

It would be unfair to blame unsuspecting parents for wanting to give their children a better life. But the reality for the girls sold by their parents is horrific: forced domestic servitude or sexual slavery in Nepal, India or further afield.

Handful of success stories

In the organisation I work with, to prevent the trade of women and children, we have celebrated a handful of success stories in these recent weeks. But for all the successes I know there are hundreds of failures and missed opportunities.

Students enter a temporary school following the Nepal earthquake. Photo: Zuma/Rex

Students enter a temporary school following the Nepal earthquake. Photo: Zuma/Rex

The most powerful and effective method of preventing a rapid increase in trafficking is to create temporary schools in these communities so children can return to education. Children need a quality education offered within their local community so their parents won’t be tempted by the false promises of traffickers. Not only this but schools and temporary spaces offer a safe space to safeguard and protect children, to support their emotional wellbeing and provide the opportunity to educate the community about the risks of trafficking.

Skills to change their own future

I am working with organisations that are making this the focus of their relief work. I am also using profits generated from sales of my business, Ama Himalaya, to put towards rebuilding schools and building temporary learning spaces.

Nepali people are proud and resourceful.  They don’t need endless handouts but what their children do need is an education that equips them with the knowledge and skills to change the future for themselves.

This is the true spirit and nature of social work and I have found that it is no different in a disaster zone then it would be back in the UK.

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