** SEE UPDATE BELOW THE STORY – KUMAR MADE IT TO HIS VILLAGE AND SENT INCREDIBLE IMAGES OF WHAT HE FOUND. WE ARE NOW COORDINATING THE RELIEF EFFORT FOR HIS VILLAGE AND YOU CAN BE A PART OF IT. DETAILS BELOW**
It’s hard to leave a friend behind when you know he is on a journey that could cost him his life…
This is the last time I stood with Kumar Gurung. It’s been five days since we had this photo together, and I haven’t heard from him in the last four.
The photo was taken on the evening of Wednesday the 29th of April, only hours before Kumar decided to set off on his own for his remote village of Singla. Kumar’s village (picture below before the earthquake) lies perched along a razor back ridge on the top of a steep mountain, a seventy kilometre journey from where we were and yet only kilometres from the epicentre of Nepal’s devastating earthquake, which stuck at 11:56 AM on the 25th of April (local time).
In the days leading up to this photo being taken, I’d worked hard to share Kumar’s story with the world. From the BBC, to CNN and the Guardian press, I told the heartbreaking story of a man who left his village several days before the earthquake, only to receive a desperate call from his wife moments after the devastation struck,
Come and rescue us! The house collapsed, we ran outside, but the children are already hungry and our food is gone!
In the panicked moments after the earthquake, Kumar tried to gather as much information as he could from the village leaders. At that stage there were; two confirmed deaths, sixty to eighty mostly children and women trapped under fallen households, a further twenty people missing, no electricity, and already their meagre food supplies buried under the rubble.
And then he lost contact. That was 10 PM on the night the earthquake struck.
For days I remained near Kumar as he tried to gather further information.
Were the rescue helicopters reaching his village? Could the village be reached on foot? What supplies did they have left? And how many people remained ‘buried’?
Meanwhile I was left to report the news to the rest of the world, making desperate plea after plea for the international community to send the right aid with the right people (as many villages remained cut off for days).
In between hurried phone calls and interviews I’d catch glimpses of Kumar looking like a man lost with no idea what on earth to do for those he loved.
As I lay out my mat to sleep in the front yard of the District Headquarters along with the other villagers too afraid to sleep inside, I spotted Kumar, listlessly scrolling through photos of his devastated country on Facebook thinking God-knows-what.
By Tuesday evening, we discovered that twice helicopter missions had attempted to make it to his village and failed, with the weather simply too bad, and the landing conditions near impossible.
The prospects of those trapped villagers surviving was fading fast.
Then on Wednesday, a glimmer of hope. Four injured, rescued by helicopter and taken to the nearest hospital (see photos below). Food rations had also been dropped by the Indian military but 640 villagers remained out in the open, without shelter, four days after the earthquake had struck.
Along with them, the photos below of exactly how bad the damage had been in Kumar’s village. The town lay in rubble, fields were destroyed and livestocks killed. To make matters worse, this was already an extremely poor village by modern day standards.
Enough was enough. Even though I received confirmation from both the local military and police chiefs that Singla could not be reached on foot, Kumar was desperate to try anyway.
He simply couldn’t wait any longer.
Here’s the messages we sent with each other:
Kumar: “I must try and reach my village. I can’t wait any longer. Now I know what I need I must go. There are still 640 people sleeping outside. The Indian Military airdropped some food and tarps but it’s not enough. I am going to try and trek there to take photos and also a water purifier.
Matt: The army and police can’t reach it on foot, how will you? It’s extremely dangerous and you might not make it.
Kumar: Thank you brother but I must go.
And that’s the last time I saw him.
For the first day and a half I received sporadic messages from Kumar.
First, images of the road totally destroyed by a landslide (which normally enables the first sixty kilometres of the journey to his village to be completed by vehicle).
Then, an image of Kumar having arrived in Barpark. He’d reached his first day’s destination, but this was just day one of a journey that could take up to seven days during normal conditions…
This image was the last contact I had with my friend at 9:16 AM on Friday the 1st of May.
And this was our last text:
Matt: Are you setting of again today for Singla?
Matt: I am praying for you and your village brother.
I haven’t heard from him since…
Who can tell what Kumar has experienced since then, or what he’s continuing to face even now. From landslides, to torrential monsoon rains and further large aftershocks… all that’s left to do now is to pray.
And even if he does make it (which is far from guaranteed), what will he find?
Entire villages of people without enough food and water, outside in the elements without even the most basic shelter, either simply too afraid or totally unable to make it somewhere safer.
What’s undeniable is that Kumar and his village will need our support, not just now but in the months and years to come. And I for one will be there right beside them. Will you?
So how can I go back to Australia whilst Kumar treks on?
I’m writing this only now as I’ve had the chance to stop and gather my thoughts, 30 000 feat above the Indian ocean and on my way home to Australia.
During the next few weeks my wife, daughter and I will recover with some much needed rest and recuperation. I’ll get to hug my family members whom I’ve missed terribly, go to the beach, and order a coffee from my favourite cafe.
But I know I’m going back….
Back to Nepal and back to Gorkha.
And I’ll find my friend and I’ll make sure he is ok.
As for now, I’ll share Kumar’s story (which is indicative of thousands of others throughout Nepal). And I’ll share it the only way I know how, with passion, conviction and a desperate resolve to make sure that everyone I can tell knows about it.
As part of our respective organisations, we’ll help in the efforts to raise much needed funds for villages, including, and just like Singla, and when my wife and I return, we’ll get to work with two of the very best organisations on the ground – World Vision International and The International Nepal Fellowship – making sure these communities are not just assisted in the short term but set up for life.
Because ‘life’ is what devastation like this tries to snub out but can’t. Joy, is what it tries to rob but fails to. And hope, is what it tries to steal but can never succeed at.
Nepal will rise again, these mountains will be full of songs, and we will get the indisputable pleasure of being a part of it all.