x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Himalaya earthquake survivor describes life in aftermath

With the few roads in Sikkim blocked by landslides, rescuers still struggle to reach remote villages and locals in Sikkim fear the quake has wrecked this year's tourist trade.

NEW DELHI // Shambu Gurung said he had just sung lyrics from a Nepali folk song - "a few moments are left in life" - when the walls of his room began to shake violently.

Mr Gurung, 23, a steward at the Tamarind Hotel in Mangan had been enjoying a quiet night with his guitar when the earthquake that devastated north-east India struck.

"I reached for the door but it was shaking so badly that I thought it would come down and bury me," he said. "In those moments I felt darkness inside me. I could not move even if I wanted to."

Mangan is in northern Sikkim, the area that suffered the most damage from the quake. Rescue workers were yesterday still struggling to reach remote villages. There is one road that leads from Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, into these villages and large portions have been destroyed by the quake and landslides.

Sikkim is the most earthquake-prone region in India, but Mr Gurung could remember nothing as intense as the magnitude 6.9 quake on Sunday evening that left at least 81 dead in India, Nepal and Tibet. Dr Kusala Rajendran, a professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, believes more damage lies ahead.

"When an earthquake of this magnitude happens, it is the aftermath that causes more damage," said Dr Rajendran. "The aftershocks can trigger landslides."

Most of the residents of Sikkim live in poorly built houses on the slopes of mountains, which Dr Rajendran believes increases the risk of more damage.

"Given the shoddy construction of roads and houses on the slopes of the hills that are not built according to safety codes, an aftershock could trigger a collapse after an earthquake has caused the initial cracks."

For those stranded by the quake such as Mr Gurung, this means that help remains far off. The town has been without electricity since Sunday and he is relying on the hotel's food supplies that he estimates will last a week. Most of the telephone networks remained down. Only landlines and one mobile company was working, he said.

What worried Mr Gurung most was the inability to know the fate of loved ones in nearby towns and villages. "We only hear snippets of what is going on, which roads are open, and that is only if someone from a nearby village has come travelling to look for their loved ones to our town," said Mr Gurung.

The Indian home secretary, R K Singh, yesterday warned that the death toll could rise as emergency relief workers reached far-flung villages such as Mangan.

Officials said about 300 people had been admitted to hospitals in Sikkim. More than 5,000 army troops were mobilised to clear roads and assist with the relief operation.

In Nepal, eight people were killed and hundreds of homes destroyed or damaged in the east of the country, where rescuers faced the same problems as their Indian counterparts with rains and mudslides blocking the only main road.

Eighteen other people died in the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal, while China's official Xinhua news agency said seven people had been killed in southern Tibet, near the border with Sikkim.

About a million people visit Sikkim every year and the tourist season is set to begin in a few weeks.

"I do not know if they will be scared to come and stay away from us," said Mr Gurung said. "If they do, that will be the death of us."



* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse