Czech Red Cross worker back from Nepal says monsoon rains could wreck fresh devastation

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross

Among the humanitarian organizations providing lifesaving aid in earthquake stricken Nepal is the Czech Red Cross. The organization released 13 million crowns to the Nepalese Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster and has since been flying out tons of medical supplies which it is helping to deliver to remote health posts and villages. Richard Smejkal of the Czech Red Cross is just back from an aid mission to the country and I asked him to share his impressions.

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
“As a rule we don’t send humanitarian aid over a distance of thousands of kilometres, that’s usually inefficient, but in this case there were three important reasons why we decided to send the aid directly to Nepal. The first was that we had a direct request from Nepalese hospitals, we knew exactly what was needed so we decided to buy it here in Prague. The second reason was that we were able to use Czech Air Force planes to deliver the aid for free and the third very important reason was that we could help the Nepalese Red Cross deliver the material to hospitals and remote health posts.”

How were you able to reach remote health posts and villages?

“Well, actually the original plan was for us to deliver the materials – bandages, gauzes, antibiotics, painkillers - directly to the Kathmandu military hospital and a number of other public hospitals. But when they saw what we had brought –things that were very useful and badly needed – they asked us to deliver it ourselves to remote health posts. They offered us the use of an Indian Army helicopter and asked us to accompany the deliveries to areas that were far from Kathmandu and were located close to the epicentre of the second earthquake, that which happened on May 12th.”

“It was really a disaster, there was no building left standing, no police station, no post office, no houses, no schools.”

I understand you even stayed overnight in one village. Is that right?

“Actually it was an unexpected situation because the helicopter had to rescue people who were found high up in the mountains and so the pilot decided to leave us in the village. This village – Singati – about 100 km east of Kathmandu was located in zone A – that means that almost 95 percent of all infrastructure and houses were destroyed – and this area had only just been approached by the Nepalese Army, the day before, so they asked us to do some monitoring, assess the situation and after 24 hours they picked us up and took us to another health post.”

And what did you find in this village?

“It was really a disaster. It was a village that served as a business hub for other villages in the area –it served about 6,000 people – and there was no building standing, no police station, no post office, no houses, no schools. People were living in very primitive shelters, just under tarpaulins; they did not even have tents. On the other hand, I must say that the locals were coping with the situation really well. They saw that we were from an international aid organization and came to talk about what was on their minds. One interesting thing was that they were very concerned about schools. They said - Ok, we can manage with hygiene and food, but what about schools? Two people approached me about this matter and each time they said - please try to help us with the schools. We had three schools, two government and one private school and all were destroyed, so we know that for the next three or five years our children will be without education.”

Richard Smejkal,  photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
Was there a language barrier in communicating with them?

“Fortunately, I was accompanied by Nepalese doctors from the Nepal Red Cross and the interesting thing is that many educated Nepalese persons speak English. There is a general rule that if you can read, you can also speak English.”

What was cooperation with the local authorities like?

“Again we have an advantage that we cooperate with the huge network of the Red Cross –so for me as a member of the Czech Red Cross it is easy to cooperate with the Nepalese Red Cross, but what I found interesting was that there was also very close cooperation with the Nepalese army and the military police. I did not expect this. The rescue effort – rescue teams, first aid teams – the organization was in the hands of the army. The soldiers had the same problems as everyone else –they too had destroyed houses and families in uncertain conditions – but they were ready to work and help and rescue other people.”

And how coordinated was the international aid effort?

“The soldiers had the same problems as everyone else –they too had destroyed houses and families in uncertain conditions – but they were ready to work and help and rescue other people.”

“You can imagine that with planes arriving every hour with humanitarian aid you need a great deal of coordination – volunteers who will monitor what is coming in and where it is needed. You need assessment of the affected areas, to make an audit and find for instance that while there is a lack of tents somewhere there is not a lack of foods because there are shops which are still functioning. And this process takes time, but it is necessary. Also, what you need in such situations is help from volunteers. There are people living in Kathmandu – local people, Europeans or Americans, who just arrived or who live there and who say “ OK, let’s take a car, let’s take 200 dollars and buy food and tarpaulins and go somewhere for two days, to some village. We know what is needed there because our friends live there.” These volunteers provide help on their own, without any coordination. The only coordination works on the level of Facebook or the local network. But I think that both these things are very important – a coordinated international effort, but also volunteers proving help by themselves –I think these two forms have to coexist together. ”

And what is the situation now? I understand the country’s own medical facilities are badly damaged, as you said schools are badly damaged….what is the situation at present?

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
“You are absolutely right. The buildings are damaged. For instance some Czech dailies reported that schools were gradually reopening, but in reality only a fraction of them are reopening. For instance in Dolakha district which we visited they have only reopened ten percent of the schools and these schools are operating in tents only. So that is a big question - what to do with the children who are living out in the open, if I can say so. Hospitals are also an issue because most of the hospitals in Kathmandu -hospitals where the critically injured patients were taken - are all still working outside the buildings. It has not been possible to return indoors because of after shakes and the static situation of these buildings. So imagine some Prague hospitals working outside –operations, intensive care units set up in parking lots, gardens, tents –that has been the scene in Kathmandu for four weeks now. So there is the question of recovery and reconstruction of Nepal. Even now they do not have one of the essential needs – shelter from the monsoon rains when they come. ”

They will clearly need help for months and years to come. Will they get it? Because in the wake of a disaster international aid is always fast and generous, but after some time it fizzles out and people forget…

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
“Yes, and it is not only this aspect, that people forget disasters in a couple of weeks. There is another question which we are trying to help solve with the Nepal Red Cross. Many organizations and private companies concentrate their help in the most affected areas –i.e. in Zone A – but we found that Zone B and Zone C need help badly as well. However they are not so attractive for donors, for fundraisers and so on. So the Czech Red Cross decided, together with the Nepalese Red Cross, to build a new health post in one remote area in Zone B or C. This health post will be constructed according to a Japanese architectural project which is earthquake resistant. It will be built after the monsoons and it should not only help the locals with health care but will also be protected from damage if another earthquake should come.”

You have gone on many volunteer missions with the Red Cross previously. Is there anything that sticks in your mind from this trip?

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
“Well, the situation is very hard there, so probably the most poignant story was that of a group of people from 3 villages who came to receive relief packages. It happened on May 12th. These people came to the military base where we were located and received their packages, but on their way back home they were killed in a landslide. I remember the story because their relatives came to the camp after 6 days to ask what had happened to their fathers and sons. And the other thing that shook me up is that the army which has perfect rescue teams has a lack of materials, they have limited resources, so it is almost impossible to recover all the dead bodies and bury them. And this is a psychological thing for the local people – that they cannot bury their relatives. And actually, according to local tradition if you cannot bury your relative it is not counted statistically as a dead body. So the big question is how many people died in Nepal altogether.”

How long will it take for things to return to normal in the country?

Photo: archive of Czech Red Cross
“Many experts I spoke to there say it is a question of five, six, maybe ten years. It is very difficult to say, especially because Nepal has very difficult mountain terrain, and many hard-to-reach areas. From my point of view I think the most difficult question will be how to rebuild villages like the one I visited, villages which served as a business hub. It is easier to rebuild individual houses. Here you have to rebuild whole villages including the infrastructure. The roads have collapsed. They are hidden under piles of stones and earth and the big question which is really, really alarming is when the rains come there will be landslides which may continue to destroy the infrastructure. The landslides are very dangerous for the local people, maybe more dangerous than these after shakes.”