Her home and village near the earthquake’s epicenter were destroyed, her grandfather was killed, and no one from outside the village — not a soldier, police officer or rescue worker — had arrived to help.
Bhima Lama, a Nepali living in New Delhi, pieced together this picture of despair from patchy cellphone calls to villagers now lacking shelter, and making do with little food and a trickle of water. It is a story that will probably be told again and again in the coming weeks as rescuers fight their way over broken roads and past landslides to reach Nepal’s countless remote areas.
The nation of 27 million was in political and economic disarray well before a powerful earthquake on Saturday shattered buildings and lives. And the natural disaster seemed sure to complicate attempts to repair the rifts opened by decades of war and political paralysis.
Nepalis are known for their toughness. Sherpas and Gurkhas, both Nepali peoples, are so renowned for grit that their names have become synonyms for strength and bravery. But the country they and other Nepalis have been navigating for years is one that tests resolve.
A 10-year Maoist insurgency ended in 2006, but political leaders have since been unable to agree on a constitution, despite two elections and repeated promises to reach consensus. Even the Chinese sent help for Nepal’s most recent elections, despite their relative lack of experience and enthusiasm for such endeavors at home.
That Nepal’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, was outside the country when disaster struck was emblematic of the government’s weakened state, particularly since part of the trip was for a doctor’s checkup into whether his cancer remained in remission.
In interviews in the past two days, Nepalis said they were forced to deal with the tragedy with hardly any government help and complained that their leaders had made the nation vulnerable, with a tolerance of poor construction and development norms.
On Sunday, Achutraj Subedi, a businessman in the construction industry, lay contorted in pain in a hospital in Katmandu, his spine, skull and left leg battered in a building collapse caused by the earthquake.
As his brother-in-law Youraj Sharma tended to him, he said both men knew well that the country was a victim of more than just natural tectonic forces.
“We’re both in the building business, and people have built buildings without pillars, without iron rods in the concrete and with very loose concrete,” Mr. Sharma said. “He was on the ground floor of a hotel, meeting with six friends in the business, and the hotel just fell down on them,” Mr. Sharma said.
Two of the men died, three others were wounded and one was still missing under the rubble, he said. “That shouldn’t happen, but it did. Like many things we have seen here.”
The country has vast hydropower potential, but electricity has long been in such short supply that lights are generally out for up to 14 hours each day in places like Katmandu. Many places have not seen power since the quake hit.
Manufacturing has declined for years and now represents a paltry 6 percent of the country’s economy. Poverty is endemic, air pollution is choking, and health statistics are terrible.
With few jobs at home, the country’s youths have become part of a modern exodus. The scale of emigration has long astonished development economists, yet it continues to grow.
On average, about 1,500 Nepalis officially left for temporary jobs abroad each day in the 2014 fiscal year, up from six a day in 1996, according to the Nepali government. Even more are thought to have left unofficially for India; because the border is unchecked, no one knows the precise figure.
In some seasons, one-quarter of Nepal’s population may be working beyond the border, economists and labor officials estimate.
Almost no other country earns a greater share of its wealth from emigrant workers. That means that just as they are most needed, Nepal’s strongest backs are mostly working in construction projects throughout the Middle East and other parts of Asia.
The result is that the remote villages like Ms. Lama’s that were destroyed Saturday are home mostly to the elderly, women and children. Young men are present only in photos, and fund transfers.
Experts and historians have long debated the roots of Nepal’s particularly toxic political culture, which, for instance, has stymied the adoption of a constitution for years. Many have concluded that Nepal’s nearly impassable mountains have created such a kaleidoscope of communities that consensus is all but impossible (although Bhutan, with similar geography, has managed to avoid this curse).
Ruled for centuries by monarchs, Nepal has 125 ethnic groups, 127 spoken languages, scores of castes and three distinct ecosystems that have divided it into feuding communities. Elites have long refused to share power with the lowland Madhesi people, and the royal family eventually imploded when the crown prince massacred the king, queen and others in 2001.
“I’m hoping this terrible disaster might finally force a political consensus among Nepal’s political elite,” said Shyam Saran, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal.
For the moment, India — Nepal’s giant neighbor — is at the forefront of relief efforts, and on Sunday India’s foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, announced that 13 military aircraft were being used to ferry 10 tons of blankets and tents, 22 tons of food and 50 tons of water. India has also sent six helicopters and 10 disaster response teams.
Whether these efforts will be enough, or welcome, is far from clear. Many Nepalis express deep ambivalence about the country’s relationship with India, feeling that India has for decades alternated between intrusive meddling and hurtful neglect. That is a crucial reason Nepal consistently refused over the past 50 years to accept India’s offers of development assistance or closer connections.
The poor state of roads connecting Nepal with India, symbolic of a lack of shared purpose and development efforts, has already hampered evacuation efforts and is bound to crimp relief work.
For now, it remains to be seen how the twin themes of Nepal’s modern history — personal perseverance and public disorder — will play out as the country struggles to recover, and then rebuild.
This feature originally appeared in NYTimes.
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