LANGTANG, 25 April 2016: Langtang in Nepal is now little more than a graveyard. The once tranquil mountain village was obliterated last April when a massive earthquake shattered a glacier, raining tonnes of ice, snow and rock down into the valley below, where hundreds of bodies still lie buried.
Scientists estimate the avalanche hit the ground with enough force to cause a blast more than half the strength of the nuclear bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, making it a miracle that anyone survived.
Those who did are making a hesitant return. Still struggling to come to terms with their loss, unable to forget the horror, they are nonetheless attempting to rebuild their lives.
All lost loved ones in the disaster, which killed 283 Nepalis and 43 foreign visitors in a village whose bucolic charm attracted thousands of trekkers every year. Many of the bodies were buried too deep under the debris ever to be found.
Suppa Tamang, who lost dozens of relatives including his second wife and 13-year-old son, was among the first of the villagers to return last month.
“I can’t account for our losses, so many people have died, nothing is left… still, we have to find a way forward,” he told AFP.
Tarp-covered shelters and a handful of construction sites now dot a landscape that was once home to more than 60 thriving guesthouses, two of them Tamang’s.
Frustrated by the government’s slowness in disbursing a promised USD2,000 in aid, a few villagers have begun rebuilding on their own — a daunting task in a remote Himalayan valley accessible only on foot or by helicopter.
“It is all so difficult and so costly — we can use mules and porters for cement and food rations, but we have to pay hundreds of dollars to helicopter companies to bring metal rods, plywood and glass panes,” said Tamang.
After the avalanche Langtang residents set up camp in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu until authorities deemed it safe for them to return.
But the heat and dust of the capital left villagers yearning for their serene, high-altitude homeland.
The small Buddhist community that crossed over from Tibet and settled here hundreds of years ago relied on yak herding and farming for its livelihood until tourism transformed the local economy.
Despite an influx of visitors, villagers held on to their own cultural and religious practices, building traditional stone guesthouses with carved wooden windows and speaking a local variant of Tibetan.
The extent of the destruction shocked even experts — among them hydrologist Walter Immerzeel, who went to Langtang last October to study its impact.
“So much ice and debris came down the mountain — when you consider the total mass and compute the speed and the altitude from where it (the avalanche) originated, we estimated that the amount of energy that would have been released would have been equivalent to the energy from 7.6 kilotons of TNT,” said Immerzeel, assistant professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
That is more than half the amount of energy released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
‘Ghosts still here’
Chiring Chokpa Lama recently opened Langtang’s first new guesthouse — a humble affair with tin and plywood walls and windows made of thin plastic sheets — taking a brave step forward even as painful memories continue to haunt her.
Lama was at home with her 21-year-old daughter, Nangse, when the avalanche struck, burying them both.
“As we ran, everything got covered by snow, rocks and debris. It buried us as well,” she recalled.
“It came down with such force, took away so many people. We never found them again.”
Hours passed as Lama and her daughter screamed for help. A relative eventually dug her out but arrived too late to save Nangse.
Dazed by grief, she finally gathered up the courage to return to Langtang with her husband, leaving their two other children in Kathmandu, where they are studying.
“We have lived here for generations, everyone we ever loved lived in this valley,” Lama said.
“We had to come back. There is nowhere else to go.”
For many in this devout, close-knit community, the future remains uncertain, shadowed by sorrow and anxiety.
At 61, yak herder Nurpu Tamang faces a lonely life, set adrift after the avalanche killed everyone in his family, including three grandchildren.
“It was the worst day in the world, I had never seen anything like it before,” said Tamang, now living in a temporary shelter in a nearby village.
For months, he woke up thinking his loved ones were still alive before realising that his nightmare was real.
“I never found their bodies… and I feel like their ghosts are still here, it makes it very hard for me to think about building another home here,” he said.
“It’s been a year but I haven’t learned to live without them.”
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