Hours before a second massive earthquake rocked Nepal, Bhim Bahadur Gurung planned to embark on an arduous trek back to his village in Gorkha, the district in Nepal that was hardest hit by the first quake.
In late April, Gurung found himself in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, not by choice but out of desperation. The journey here was difficult; returning home was going to be even more so.
He knew he would have to carry his daughter Maya back home. The spry 10-year-old he knew went away the day the earth shook.
Gurung, like millions of other Nepalis who survived, says he feels tremendously lucky that none of his loved ones died. Yet, he knows that a few minutes of the earth’s violent rattling has forever altered his family’s life trajectory. The future, already filled with so many uncertainties for this struggling rural family, turned ominous after the quake.
Maya was frightened and in severe pain when I first met her. For the most part, she lay statue-still on Bed 41 of the female surgical unit in a Kathmandu hospital, where even the eye and gynecology wards are being used to treat the injured. Once in a while she touched her left leg and winced in pain, hot tears streaming down her dust-caked face.
On my second visit a few days later, I bring her Cadbury’s chocolate. She eats just one piece and saves the rest for later.
I watch her as I speak with her father and can tell she understands what has happened. Like so many children in this part of the world, she has in some ways been robbed of childhood innocence by the hardscrabble nature of her life circumstances.
Despite what anyone might say to comfort her, Maya is savvy enough to realize that things will never be the same; that she must live a life scarred by disaster.
‘I tried to dodge the rocks’
That morning, Maya Gurung was another ordinary girl in Kasi Gaon, a poor village in one of the poorest nations in Asia.
It was a Saturday, and Maya had no school. Still, she did her chores, including a 20-minute climb up the mountain to fetch drinking water for her family. She did this three times every day. There is no indoor plumbing at her father’s house; there’s no source for drinking water nearby.
On weekdays, Maya fetched water and then went off to school, though she didn’t like studying much. She is in the fifth grade, but no one in her family encouraged her to learn. She was valued more for helping around the house. She helped her mother with cooking, washing dishes and collecting wood and kindling for the stove. She often watched over her 3-month-old brother when her mother needed relief.
At 10, Maya, the second youngest of six siblings, was invaluable to her parents, who live off the land growing barley and maize. Their lives were not easy in Gorkha District.
On April 25, she set off her with uncle Dami Gurung and his daughter Manisha, 5, to graze their cattle. They had to navigate to lower ground to find fields for the cows and drifted about two hours away from Maya’s home.
At 11:56 a.m., when the ground began shaking, Dami grabbed the two girls and tried to seek shelter from rocks and boulders that came hurtling toward them down the hills.
“I tried to dodge the rocks,” he says, “but I could not save her.”
A boulder hit them, and they all sustained severe injuries. Maya’s was the worst. Her left leg was crushed.
Manisha was howling. Maya was screaming with pain.
The family’s village was devastated, says Maya’s father. Gorkha was one of two districts hardest-hit, according to aid organizations that have surveyed the damage. There were few medical facilities equipped to treat the injured, and it took time for helicopters to maneuver into hilly and harsh terrain.
Gurung tries to tell me what his village looked like after the quake. He pauses and wraps his head in his hands.
“I just can’t describe things. I have no words,” he says.
Almost every house sustained damage, including his. He was, as usual, working in the fields that day and ran home once the earth stopped moving. He saw the destruction around him, but all he cared about at that moment was finding his daughter. He went from house to house, frantic.
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When he finally found his brother and daughter, he took them to a village clinic. But there was little they could do. Maya winced in pain, her leg wrapped in rags. She waited like this for more than a day before a Nepalese military helicopter airlifted her out.
Gurung hopped aboard the chopper with his daughter. But when it stopped to pick up more people, the military ordered him off to make room for the injured.
He watched the helicopter rise into the sky, carrying his daughter many miles to Kathmandu. He was thankful that someone would save Maya, but he couldn’t stand the thought of his child being alone. He was sure she would be shivering in fear. He just wanted to hold his little girl and tell her everything would be alright.
He didn’t sleep all night, he says. And when the sun rose, he set off to find her.
He began the long trek by foot. He hitchhiked Jeep rides and then boarded a bus with his brother Dami, who also needed treatment for his leg injuries.
Kathmandu is a congested city of millions. Gurung was directed to Tribhuban University Teaching Hospital, where many earthquake victims were receiving free or low-cost care.
Dami and his daughter Manisha checked into the hospital for care. It was only then that they saw Maya’s name in the registration ledger.
On Wednesday afternoon, four days after the quake, Gurung discovered his daughter. She was scared, tears streaming down her face; a green woolen blanket covered her from the waist down. Maya grabbed her father tight. When he pulled back to stand up straight, she threw her arms about him and drew him close again.
The scene was so emotional that doctors and nurses clicked their cell phone cameras to capture the reunion.
But then Gurung’s eyes fell on his daughter’s left leg. His heart started beating hard. All he saw was a thick bandage with the Nepalese date scribbled on it. Doctors were forced to amputate from her shin down.
He knew instantly what this meant.
“It couldn’t be saved,” Dr. Prem Raj Sigdel told him. “She is stable now, but she doesn’t really realize what her life conditions will be. It will be very difficult for her. You and I can imagine it, but maybe she can’t.”
‘Papa, papa, don’t leave me’
There’s very little to do to keep busy at the hospital. The only joy is when the cell phone rings.
Maya grabs it before her father can get to it. It’s her brother. He’s only a year older and is close to Maya.
“How is everyone?” she asks. “Tell them I will come home soon. I will do all my chores again. Until then, look after the house.”
She says she misses her friends, Priti, Sunita and Michi. The four girls walk 50 minutes to school together every day.
Gurung tends to his daughter’s needs. He feeds her a mixture of rice and lentils; gives her a bed pan when she has to urinate and then goes to empty it.
“Papa, papa,” Maya cries. “Don’t leave me.”
When he returns, she makes him rub her left arm, where a needle has been inserted for a blood transfusion. Maya lost a lot of blood and her hemoglobin levels are too low.
I talk to her about her life back home.
I imagine it as being a hard one; she has known nothing else. I promise to come back and see her in a few days and ask her if I can bring her anything besides chocolate.
“Mobile,” she responds.
She wants her own phone so she can call her mother and brother every day. She misses them.
“She wants to go home,” Gurung tells me. “She has been crying for her mother. My wife wants to come here, but it’s very difficult. She has to look after the baby and besides, the journey is long.”
And now, many of the roads are blocked by landslides.
An unknown future
The last time I see Maya, her face lights up when I enter the room. It has been nearly two weeks since the earthquake.
“Namaste!” she says from her bed, joining her hands together in a traditional Hindu greeting.
The nurses have bathed her, changed the dressing on her leg and replaced the printed cotton dress she had been wearing since she was hurt with a fresh striped T-shirt and jersey shorts.
I take her father aside to ask difficult questions. I don’t want Maya to hear his responses.
“She wants so much to go home,” he says. “But it will be so difficult. Now that she does not have a leg, I will have to carry her everywhere. She won’t be able to collect water or do her chores.”
He tells me he was finally able to speak with his wife about their daughter’s misfortune.
He says their village is nestled in a mountain. The only means of getting around is by foot; people grow accustomed to walking great distances.
“The pathways are steep and filled with rocks and stones,” Gurung says.
He says his wife could not stop crying on the phone. “I lost my arms,” she told him. “Maya did everything for me.”
Gurung’s biggest worry is that no one will want to marry his daughter. A father feels responsible for a daughter until he passes her off to her husband. This is the way it is in his world.
“Who will take care of her when I am gone?” he asks.
I look at Maya and wonder whether she comprehends the gravity of the problem.
“I will stay home all the time,” she tells me. “My father will carry me when I have to go out.”
Her doctors say she can eventually be fitted with a prosthetic leg. But in rural Nepal, she may not have the access to the medical care she will need as she grows.
I take out a present I have brought for Maya. It’s inside a bright blue cloth bag.
“Mobile,” she says, a smile lighting up her entire face as she opens the box.
The doctors estimate she could be discharged in the next two weeks. Again, I try to imagine what her life might be like, in that hardscrabble existence, without a leg.
“Will you call me?” I ask.
Maya nods her head. I say goodbye with the hope that she will.
On Tuesday, Maya called Ayush Khadka, a former journalist who worked as a guide for me when I was in Kathmandu. She and her father told Khadka that they were leaving the hospital and were making their way home.
Then another earthquake struck Nepal and Khadka has not been able to make contact with the family since.
Khadka and I plan to keep trying to make contact with Maya and her family. I can only hope they are safe.