Jitender Singh, 27, has not seen human tragedy on the scale of the Nepalese earthquake before. And he is struggling to come to terms with it.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) sepoy says retrieving bodies from 15 feet below a collapsed nine-storied building is terrifying, but his team has a job to do.
Singh was among the first NDRF teams that flew to Nepal on April 25 hours after the killer quake flattened Kathmandu, scripting a sordid tale of death, despair and horror. Singh and his team hit the ground running and found themselves deployed in one of worst-hit parts of Kathmandu — Naya Buspark — on the night they landed here.
He has barely slept for two hours since he arrived, with the NDRF carrying out rescue and relief operations on a war footing. “We had lunch at 2pm on Saturday at Bathinda before taking off. The next meal came after 30 hours. We are trained for such scenarios but this is simply a picture out of hell,” says Singh, who hails from Punjab’s Gurdaspur district.
The NDRF’s second ever international rescue operation -- the force was sent to Japan in 2011 following the nuclear disaster -- is turning out to be baptism by fire for Singh and many others.
Scores of tall buildings came down like a pack of cards in Naya Buspark where Indian and Chinese rescue workers are working side by side to retrieve people, most of whom are likely dead.
But there’s always a remote chance of finding someone alive, and that’s what keeps Singh and his buddies going.
Havaldar MN Chapi says it’s unlikely that there are any survivors under the collapsed building. “But who knows (if) there is someone out there waiting to be rescued. It’s that guy who keeps us going,” says the 36-year-old whose eyes are bloodshot from the lack of sleep.
Aftershocks can prove deadly for rescue workers. Every time there is a tremor, they simply pray and run for cover. Sepoy Laxmi Kant Dubey, 26, says, “We are like sitting ducks under collapsed structures. We are not bothered about our safety but we do worry about our families if something were to happen to us.”
On Monday, the NDRF team deployed at Naya Buspark worked tirelessly for hours to retrieve a dead body as huge crowds gathered in the neighbourhood hoping for a miracle.
“The bodies are in an indescribable state. Even doctors get nauseous on seeing their condition. Some of my colleagues could not eat food,” adds Dubey, sitting inside a three-tonne Nepal army truck for a 15-minute break.
The body of a serving Nepalese major is buried in rubble in the adjoining building in Naya Buspark. Bringing it out is a top priority for Indian rescue workers because of the sentimentality of the Nepalese army. NDRF sub inspector Sachin Bisht says it will be impossible to bring it out in one piece. “But we will extricate it,” he says, wearing a mask to keep the stench from dead bodies away.
Kathmandu has come to a grinding halt and bustling neighborhoods now look like ghost towns, with people abandoning their homes and settling down along the roads or in open spaces fearing another fierce earthquake.
Cab drivers have upped their rates substantially as fuel supplies may be thinning out in the coming days. The cremation ground near the Pashupati temple — a world heritage site — has spilled over to the banks of Bagmati river.
The smell of death hangs heavy in the Kathmandu air. And those alive know they were plain lucky.