By Tim Costello.
A few months ago I was in Nepal, supporting World Vision’s extraordinary staff as they responded to a devastating earthquake.
The earthquake struck on April 25, the very day we in Australia were marking the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
Within hours the scale of the disaster started to emerge. Transport and communications are difficult in Nepal, and it took some time just to locate all our staff. But very quickly the relief operation began to swing into action.
Though I have been in disaster zones on many occasions, it is something you never really get used to. The physical shock of ruined places, and the spiritual shock of being among distraught people who have lost everything are always confronting. Yet I never fail to be amazed at human resilience. Even in a dark corner of a darkened world God’s gift of hope continually reasserts itself.
Three days after the quake I found myself sitting with a man by the name of Bhoj Kumar Thapa in a small village on a mountain close to the epicentre. It was a profoundly humbling experience.
Bhoj had arrived back in his village, just outside the city of Gorkha, on the night of the earthquake to find his wife, Sushila, dead. She was eight months pregnant. He said he felt lost, “like I was in another world”, and that something within him had also died. He could not imagine how he could carry on and hoped that time would show him a way.
But Sushila had done something extraordinary before she died. During the terror of the earthquake, she shielded their five year old daughter, Sudikchhya, underneath her pregnant body, protecting her from the rocks that fell around them as their village turned to rubble.
Sudikchhya was found unconscious by her grandfather, Sher Bahadur Thapa Mager, who wept with both sadness and joy when he found them, for a life sacrificed and a life saved.
Only hours earlier, thousands of Australians had stood above the beach at Gallipoli to honour the sacrifice of the young Anzacs 100 years ago and heard the words of John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.
But here, on a mountainside in Nepal, there was no greater love than that of a mother who lay down her life for her daughter.
Arriving in Kathmandu after the earthquake was an assault on the senses. Smoke rose from the banks of the Bagmati River, which is considered holy by both Hindus and Buddhists, where bodies were being cremated and the ashes scattered in the water.
In the centre of Kathmandu, we walked in the ruins of the UNESCO-listed Dharahara tower. The earthquake took many lives and many of Nepal’s historical treasures too. Days after the earthquake, police suspected there were still many bodies in the ruins.
In the villages, where so many perished, food, water and shelter were also destroyed. With the monsoon approaching, World Vision rushed to get aid to those people.
In the days after the earthquake, the anguish we felt for the Nepalese, some of the gentlest and poorest people on Earth, was coupled with frustration as much-needed aid, including medical supplies and shelter, was prevented from arriving through the small funnel of the Kathmandu airport. Time and again our planes were turned back until finally we were forced to resort to trucking in supplies from India. Nepal’s government had appealed to the international community for help, but help could not get in. Time and again people would ask us, “Where is the help? When is help coming?” And all the time we were there, more bodies were being found in the rubble.
Nepal sits at the meeting point of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. Those same massive forces of nature which created the Himalayas still clash and create earthquakes. The last big one, claiming a similar number of deaths in Nepal and Northern India was in 1934. It was a different world then – Mahatma Gandhi famously and controversially suggested that earthquake was “divine chastisement” for India’s “sin of untouchability”- yet eighty years on the irrevocable destruction wrought by these primordial forces was in scale and pattern chillingly similar.
Was this earthquake “the big one” that the Nepalese have dreaded for decades? We can only hope that it was. But many Nepalese fear otherwise. This anxiety makes the task of rebuilding Nepal – and rebuilding better than before – all the more urgent.
It is very easy to become jaded or complacent about natural disasters. So easy to think that these events are happening to people thousands of miles away, and don’t concern us.
But we need to recognise that disaster strikes hardest at the people with the least resources to respond. Of course we felt frustration and anger at Nepal’s poor infrastructure and difficult bureaucracy – but these are the product of unjust structures and systems that Nepalese live with all the time, not just when disaster hits.
As followers of Jesus we are called to love mercy and act with compassion, and our works of emergency relief are an answer to that call. We are also called to seek justice, and we should never accept as normal the poverty and disadvantage that leaves people so vulnerable when disaster strikes. As Nelson Mandela taught us, extreme poverty is like slavery and apartheid – created by human wrongdoing, and capable of being addressed by humans doing right.
Returning home, I was so proud of the generous response of many Australians to the awful plight of the Nepalese. World Vision’s church partners were so strong and fast in answering the call.
For people like Bhoj’s family, this generosity makes it possible to provide relief and restore some hope. Most importantly it is also a reminder in a time of crisis that no one is alone. Even in the hardest places, God and God’s servants are there to stand alongside those touched by tragedy.
Tim Costello is one of Australia’s most sought after voices on issues of social justice, leadership and ethics. Since 2004 Tim has been CEO of World Vision, Australia’s largest international development agency. Trained in economics, law, education and theology, Tim has practised law, served as a Baptist minister, and has been active in church and community leadership, local government and national affairs. Tim was a keynote speaker at the 2015 LifeWell Conference in Adelaide.