It is now a city that wears a mask. Some are red, others blue, but most are black. In the days that followed April 25, when the ground beneath Kathmandu shook violently and swallowed up parts of the city, many public service announcements were made, asking people to wear them.
Those who survived the earthquake were told to protect themselves from the dust. They wore the masks for days but slowly, as they began to rebuild their lives and their faith, the masks started coming off. People believed the storm had passed. Then came Monday afternoon, and the ground shook violently again. In Kathmandu, nobody cares that the damage in the city is limited, and that there is very little dust. The masks have reappeared, and people hide behind them in fear.
More than two weeks after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal, the streets of its capital can be misleading. Most buildings that were damaged now have wooden poles supporting them, and are barricaded from the outside, often looking like any other structure that is under construction.
But nearly every structure that stands has a crack on the wall, and people sitting below it. In front of them, the traffic is sparse. Behind them, the doors and windows of shops remain firmly shut.
“We had reopened our clothes shop last week, but when the second big earthquake came, we shut it again. If two earthquakes can happen, why can’t three? I sit outside my shop to protect it from thieves, but I will not go inside. I have been pulling out bodies for two weeks, and I don’t want to be one of them. We stay in the park at night,” said Ram Kumar Rai, sitting outside his apparel store in Durbar Square.
In the evening, Rai trudges two kilometres to Tundikhel Stadium, which now houses over a thousand people. Most of the grass is covered with tents of different colours. Almost all tents have the name of the country or organisation that is funding the tarpaulin sheet — some say Turkey, others Bahrain, one even says Samsung. A water tanker, where women line up with buckets, says Vietnam.
One relief worker with the Bahrain contingent said, “Our tents had become empty and we were packing to leave. But when the second big earthquake came, people rushed back. The numbers are even bigger than the first time.”
Amid the tension, everyone is trying to keep the morale up. In front of Durbar Square and Basantpur Temple complex, Laxminarayan Shilpakar waves a massive Nepal flag, asking people to keep the faith. Next to him is traffic constable, Lakshman Attri, who directs traffic on a near empty road. “I have been told to act like it is a normal day. People have to move on, and it is our job to restore a sense of normalcy,” Attri said.
But the two earthquakes are embedded in every mind, in every conversation. In a Turkish tents just 50 metres away, a mother scolds her son for wasting food: “If you misbehave, the earthquake will come again.”
Two hours later, at 7.30 pm, 15 Army personnel supposed to stand guard put out their bedding for the night in the middle of the Basantpur temple complex. The spot they pick is right in the middle of a clearing, at a safe distance from any structure. Even when among the gods, their faith is shaken.