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STORY: Earthquake paralyzed Sapana Gurung but now she has a home where can move again

Sapana Gurung, 24, does not remember too many details of what happened about four and half years ago, when the massive earthquake hit Nepal on the 25th of April 2015.

What she knows now is that the day changed her life.

It was Saturday around midday. Sapana was at home in Thulogaun village in Rasuwa, about 50 kilometers north from the capital Kathmandu. The ground started to shake and the whole house collapsed on her. She was buried in the rubble and dust. Luckily, her father and other family members managed to dig her out of the debris. After her sisters washed the dust off, she realized that something bigger was wrong.

In Thulogaun village, basically all of the buildings collapsed or were severely damaged by the 2015 Earthquake. Red Cross helped to rebuilt almost 500 houses.

“I did not understand what was happening with my feet and waist. I could not feel or move them at all,” Sapana recalls. As she was in pain, her uncle took her to the nearby school where they were expecting a helicopter to bring the most severely injured victims of the quake to the hospital. But the helicopter never arrived.

It took three full days until she finally got to the hospital. In Nuwakot hospital she was immediately referred to the teaching hospital in Kathmandu. In Kathmandu, Sapana finally learned she had a severe spinal injury.

“That day I knew I will not be able to walk ever again or live the life I was living before the earthquake. I was depressed and cried a lot,” she says.

Three districts, 19 villages

Now, more than four years after the earthquake Sapana sits in her wheelchair, just dozens of meters away from a place that used to be her home, on a terrace of a newly-built house — her new home.

Sapana’s family’s new house was built by local construction workers —thanks to funds and technical assistance from the Red Cross. In Thulogaun village, Red Cross supported the rebuilding or repair of nearly 500 homes impacted by the earthquake.

In addition to Thulogaun, Nepal Red Cross recovery program supported house reconstruction, establishment of access to clean water,
restoring people’s incomes, and improving health also in 18 other villages in Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Makwanpur districts. In total, 2,885 families had their home repaired or reconstructed.

An accessible home

Sapana spends lots of time inside and around the house with her sisters. Even though the house and the courtyard are wheelchair-friendly, the hilly village otherwise is not.

Sapana was able to return to her home village about a year after her injury. Because her home had collapsed, she at first stayed in a temporary structure, ‘cottage’ as she calls it, made of iron sheets. In the cottage she could not move by herself very well. The ground was uneven, doorways too small. When she wanted to get out of her room, even for the toilet, she always needed someone else.

So when Sapana’s family finally managed to rebuild their home with financial and technical assistance from the Red Cross, they placed special emphasis on making it wheelchair-friendly. The new house has a wide hallway and doors, plus a ramp to the courtyard. The features make the house more manageable for Sapana to navigate and to evacuate if another disaster strikes.

“Now I can move everywhere, even to the courtyard, by myself. The most important support Red Cross has given is the toilet where I can get easily even with the wheelchair,” she says with a wide smile.

Red Cross trained masons

Ishwor Gurung also remembers the difference between the old and the new houses in Thulogaun. He is one of the Red Cross trained masons whose job was to help the neighbors in rebuilding.

He was taught to work with the ‘Build Back Better’ principle in his mind, meaning for example that every new house they build would be earthquake-resistant and have a proper toilet and sanitation system in place – in general to be better than the previous ones.

Ishwoor Gurung is a Red Cross trained mason. He was taught to work according to Build Back Better principle so that every rebuilt house is somehow better than the previous was.

In addition to funding the in-depth training of masons like Ishwor, Red Cross also funded architects and engineers from the organization Build Change to consult on the design of homes — to ensure they are built in a way to better withstand future earthquakes and line up with government guidelines.

“The whole village is now very different, much better. We don’t have to be afraid of the earthquakes anymore as the houses are built with modern engineering techniques,” Iswhor says proudly. Of course, no home can be 100% earthquake resistant, but the construction workers take measures to make them stronger and more resilient.

Red Cross volunteer Kamala Adhikari has been working as a social mobilizer during the earthquake recovery. Even though the Red Cross project has finished, the good things brought by Red Cross won’t go anywhere. “Every house has their own toilet, women-led saving groups are still running”, she says.

Kamala Adhikari—who used to volunteer for the Red Cross as a social mobiliser teaching sanitation skills, setting up community groups and helping people restore their livelihoods — echoes his point.

“Even though the Red Cross project has now finished, the good things brought by it are still here. Every house has its own toilet, women-led saving groups are still running, and the respect of the Red Cross is very high.”

Kamala thinks the future of Thulogaun looks bright. She dreams about having more livestock, better roads and even tourists in her village.

Sapana too has some plans for the future: “I hope to establish a shop in one of the rooms and run a business. That’s how I could also contribute to our family’s income even though I have a wheelchair,” she says.

Utthan Earthquake Response Project

  • Nepal 2015 Earthquake claimed almost 9000 lives, destroyed 600,000 houses, displaced 700,000 households and otherwise affected more than 1.1 million families around Nepal.
  • American Red Cross led Earthquake Response Project called Utthan started on October 15 2015 and ended on March 31, 2019
  • The project targeted three of the most affected districts: Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Makwanpur.
  • Project supported the communities on rebuilding houses, access to clean water and sanitation, improving the health and hygiene promotion and income generation through different livelihood opportunities.
  • American Red Cross supported the project with 14.5 million US dollars, Spanish Red Cross with 1.82 million US dollars and Canadian Red Cross with 1.3 million US dollars.

Text and photos: Jani Savolainen