KATHMANDU — It's 4 p.m. in Durbar Square, the iconic piazza in the middle of Nepal's capital, and a group of volunteers is digging through the rubble of the Hindu Kasthamandap Temple which, according to legend, was built with the wood of a single tree in the 12th century. Suddenly, there's an explosion of joy and a round of applause.
Two rescuers hold a pigeon who miraculously survived in a crevice between two beams. They raise it towards the sky, and after a bit of confusion, the bird takes off. It's a moment of hope after 24 non-stop hours of desperate attempts to find survivors of Saturday's devastating earthquake.
Shortly beforehand, a group of young Swedes who decided to cut their vacation short to join the relief effort had helped the military pull out the body of a man. He was found in a corner of the temple. Perhaps he was one of the dozens of volunteers at the sacred place often used as a community center, where ceremonies or events are organized by residents.
It seems incredible, but the only building in Durbar Square still intact is the home of the local Kumari — the child goddess protectors of Nepal. From this side of the square, your heart jolts to see this historic place crumbled like a sand castle. Many people are lying on the ground with umbrellas to protect themselves from the early afternoon sun, or sitting on what remains of the steps. Some people have perched on the rubble here as if nothing has happened, perhaps still in disbelief of the tragedy.
About 30 minutes away, on the streets covered in rubble and waste, another crowd is stationed around the ruins of the Dharahara Tower, the white minaret beloved by locals, despite the tour guides who characterize it as "of little interest." They aren't digging here, but a strong smell of rotting flesh remains. After a while, police arrive in blue camouflage, and the army too, to clear away the crowd because a warning for another aftershock had been issued.
As expected, the earth continues to tremble and terrorize the displaced who have occupied the city's parks and gardens with mattresses and makeshift tents. On Sunday, two strong aftershocks, including one of a 6.7 magnitude, caused panic, forcing people to flee their homes and to camp in the streets.
Corpses continue to emerge from the ruins of Kathmandu's temples, where people are digging with their bare hands to retrieve bodies or find survivors. There are now more than 3,600 people confirmed dead and about 6,000 injured. But these numbers are provisional, destined to rise dramatically as the hours pass. There are fears that more bodies are trapped under the mountains of bricks and debris, and it's incredibly difficult to estimate the number of missing people. The earthquake, which shook half of Asia (affecting 6.6 million people, according to UN estimates), resulted in victims in India, Bangladesh and Tibet too.
Afraid of standing buildings
In Kathmandu, many people still have homes intact but are simply afraid to enter them, as are some of the guests at the Annapurna Hotel — a historic hotel on Durbar Marg street whose casino was one of the first to make the city an entertainment mecca for rich Indians (though Nepalese are forbidden to enter).
The guests took mattresses from the bedrooms to the garden and pool's sun deck to camp out. Many of them are "trapped" tourists, waiting to get a seat on the first plane out of here. But, at least the five-star hotel has electricity thanks to its powerful generators, which are necessary because blackouts frequently plague the Himalayan kingdom as well as its neighbors. Despite the mountainous beauty and the "Everest industry," Nepal is among the poorest countries in South Asia because of chronic political instability and endemic corruption.
The university hospital, one of the largest and hosting almost 1,000 injured, doesn't have a refrigerated mortuary. Nearly 180 bodies awaiting identification are on the floor in a large room, each with two pieces of ice on their stomachs to slow decomposition. An ambulance arrives, placing another two bodies, unrecognizable because of dust and mangled limbs, on the floor.
This truly macabre image underscores the severity of the emergency, and the country's inability to deal with natural disasters. Sadly, many experts say the earthquake could have been predicted given the deep smoldering in the bowels in the Himalayas.