From research to relief mission: Ellie Walsh on being in the centre of a disaster zone

"Less than 24 hours ago I was on a menial PhD research errand, searching for a cheap place to print out an old Tharu newspaper that had been scanned and sent to me from the US. Now I am trying to make my way across the chaotic, crumbling central region of Nepal to Gorkha, the perilous seed of the earthquake."

PhD student Ellie Walsh was researching her dissertation on Nepalese low-caste poetry when the devastating earthquake hit the country on 25 April this year. Five weeks into a three-month trip – her third to the country – she’d been integrating into a remote community, working in schools and at an elephant stable, while setting up interviews with cultural and societal figures. In conversation with CONNECT, and through her own writing, she shares her story.

“I was in a paddy field, knee deep in water, and suddenly I lost my balance,” Ellie says when asked about the moment the 7.8 Richter scale quake struck. “It was as though I’d lost my footing; I felt drunk. But then I saw that the water around me was rippling and I thought ‘it can’t be an earthquake, can it?’”

In a state of disbelief, she cycled back to her village and found that it had avoided heavy damage – the rickety mud and bamboo huts had, to a large extent, absorbed and swayed with the quake. But as the hours ticked by and news filtered through of an escalating death toll it became clear that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding elsewhere.

“There was terrible displacement in Kathmandu – worse than anywhere else,” says Ellie. “But there was plenty of aid too, as many of the NGOs were based there. It was in the remote areas that we knew that aid was badly needed and where we felt we might make a contribution.”

With friends from Chitwan, Ellie set out for the Gorkha district, and arriving in the early hours of the morning, encountered a scene she describes as ‘genuinely post-apocalyptic’. Many of the buildings, perched atop wooden stilts, had been hobbled and reduced to rubble, and the sense of confusion and chaos was suffocating any relief effort. After a few days of frustrated inaction, they returned to Chitwan, but only to load up with food and other supplies and head back with a plan of action.

“The journey was really tough though – we had to climb over landslides, it was pitch dark and I kept falling over,” says Ellie. “I had altitude sickness and I was covered in leeches – it’s fair to say I was regretting it after ten minutes!”

Establishing a base in Gorkha, the team would raise money through overseas donations from friends and contacts, and would use the funds to buy tarpaulins, rice, noodles and tea from the town of Narayanghat. Then, by truck wherever possible, they would distribute the supplies to the surrounding villages, before repeating the process.

"Small children pushed their hands through the bars of the truck, begging for just one of something…one tent, one bag of rice. We drove past so many people in need. Some villages weren’t accessible by road at all and we had to climb on foot, laden with boxes of tea and noodles, walking well into the night, muted by intense tiredness and sickness."

Aftershocks perpetually changed the landscape, rendering many roads impassable, and the risk of further building collapse meant sleeping outside or in buffalo sheds, in cold, dirty and dusty conditions. And Ellie also saw evidence of corruption dogging the relief effort – at one stage the police even requested that the group hand over their aid, necessitating a rapid and clandestine distribution.

After half a dozen relief runs, the team returned to Chitwan to focus on the rebuilding process amid the merciless heat and mosquitos. Ellie spent much of her time looking after the boys who were working in the area, many miles from their families. They clung to her constantly for reassurance. And it was there that she also endured some of her toughest experiences, seeing members of the community ‘fall apart’, succumbing to hopelessness and an anger further fermented by ‘raksi’, a local spirit distilled from millet or rice.

"The perpetual fear is disarming, it has reduced us to children. I’m certainly no better, obsessive about everyone sticking in a group, whining if anyone leaves for too long. But everyone is doing their best. People look out for each other fiercely. I am proud that not once has anyone asked me to go home. Friends bring me clean clothes, force me to eat, chaperone me everywhere, but they trust my judgement in staying."

Ellie flew home in June, but has kept in touch with friends and loved ones in the country.

“It does feel a little unfair that I was able to hit ‘game over’ while everyone else has to keep going,” she says. “But I'm not going to lie and say that it hasn't been a relief to have a proper bed and bath after so many nights of sleeping in filthy conditions, with people getting sick. I am trying to be brave and smart, but it’s impossible to be both at the same time. But whatever happens, I hope I am here to see things begin to get better."

Quite apart from the earthquake, Ellie’s PhD, which is being supervised by Professor Anthony Caleshu, in the School of Humanities and Performing Arts, has been a challenging topic to research. The caste system places Tharu people at the base of society, but prejudice and a rapid westernisation of the younger generation has made it difficult for Ellie to find and conduct meaningful interviews.

“I have gone to Nepal as a young white female, and getting taken seriously as an academic is a major hurdle,” she says. “I have had some disastrous interviews with people who cannot resolve the clash between the way I am and the way they think I should be.”

Ellie is due to return to Nepal later in the year to continue her research. She has received a Roland Levinsky Award and a Santander Universities Scholarship to help fund her trips.

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