TIME Nepal

Rohingya Say Quake-Ravaged Nepal Is Better Than Life at Home or Death at Sea

Hassan Hassan, left, and other Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal
Sabrina Toppa for TIME Hassan Hassan, left, with fellow Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu in July 2014

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime”

After last Tuesday’s magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck Nepal, the fear of aftershocks prompted Hassan Hassan to sleep on the street. The temblor sliced off his door, shattered his windows, and cracked the walls of the ramshackle dwelling he shared with almost 30 other refugees on Kathmandu’s outskirts.

Hassan is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim from western Burma, a country now officially known as Myanmar. Along with tens of thousands of Rohingyas, the 22-year-old fled recent pogroms initiated by his homeland’s Buddhist majority in search of a better life elsewhere.

But while most Rohingya escape on rickety boats, facing possible extortion or execution in Thai trafficking camps en route to safety, Hassan instead trundled overland more than 100 km into the snow-capped Himalayas.

And despite the wanton devastation, half-million homes flattened and at least 8,500 lives lost, the recent twin quakes and numerous aftershocks have not stopped Hassan from counting his blessings.

“I am lucky,” he tells TIME. “If I had gone to Thailand, maybe I also would’ve died.”

Out of Nepal’s total 37,000 refugees, some 120 are Burmese, of whom 70% are Rohingya, according to the local U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) office. While the 21,500 camp-based Bhutanese are recognized as legitimate refugees, “urban refugees” like the Rohingya are officially deemed illegal migrants.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim group of 1.3 million that mainly live in Burma’s westernmost Arakan state, and are dubbed “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples” by the U.N. The Burmese government refuses to grant them citizenship and claims they are in fact interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh similarly shuns them as non-citizens.

Rohingya in Burma face restrictions on travel, education, marriage and land ownership. However, when politically expedient to the military-dominated government, Rohingyas have occasionally been allowed to vote.

“Many of them have been killed,” says Silvia di Gaetano, a Burma researcher at the Rights in Exile Programme. “Those who remain suffer malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; and above all discrimination and persecution.”

Confined to squalid displacement camps, many Rohingya have fled east, potentially to die in the sea on the way to Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia. Now, however, these nations have started turning the boats away. And in recent weeks, mass graves have been uncovered in the thick jungle where Thailand tapers into Malaysia, belonging to Rohingya who fell prey to human traffickers that demand exorbitant ransoms to set them free. Those without wealthy connections are slain as a warning to others.

Activists have raised alarm that the Andaman Sea’s transformation into a “floating graveyard” is imminent, as the world witnesses a startling uptick in Rohingya’s perilous cross-border journeys. The U.N. reports that in this year alone, these voyages have nearly doubled, with almost 25,000 people estimated to attempt the journey, and 300 deaths already projected from unsuccessfully charting it.

As this humanitarian crisis deepens, most Rohingya in Nepal have expressed gratitude for the nation’s willingness to take them in and donate tents and critical relief supplies, despite recent quake-related hardships.

“For Rohingya, Nepal is still better than Burma,” says 30-year-old Zafir Miya, who also traversed South Asia — from Burma through Bangladesh and India to Nepal — in order to find a safe haven.

Hassan, who believes he is Nepal’s first Rohingya refugee, arrived in August 2012 — by mistake. “When I went from Bangladesh to India, the currency changed, so I knew I was in a different country,” he recalls. “But when I entered Nepal, they were still using Indian currency.”

Hassan did not realize Kathmandu was the capital of Nepal, a distinct country. Growing up in the Maungdaw district of Arakan state, Hassan says he lacked access to radio, television — Burma banned Rohingya-language broadcasts in 1965 — or even a SIM card, which before recent reforms would cost over $2,000.

When Hassan made his way to Kathmandu, he first scoured the city’s jails for the familiar faces of his missing kin, as many urban refugees are rounded up by police for illegal stays.

“Most [refugees] have been overstaying in Nepal for years,” says UNHCR Nepal spokesperson Deepesh Das Shrestha. The refugees are subject to a $5 per day overstay fine, possibly accumulating thousands of dollars in debt they cannot pay, because they are not allowed to work.

Without labor privileges in Nepal, most Rohingya are forced to stay idle, surviving on a UNHCR stipend of slightly more than $42 per month. For Hassan, this means his memory is awash with details of family he has not seen since before the 2012 Arakan state riots. He stays awake thinking of his mother Hafiza Begum, 43, whose towering stature distinguishes her from most Rohingya women. Hassan’s black-bearded father of 6 ft. 5 in., Mohammad Amin, 50, is marked by a 1.5-in. scar above his nose. All members of his family, except his 4-ft. 8-in. sister Rubina Aziz, are taller than the average Burmese citizens, including his four brothers: Emrun Faroque, Mojibur Rahman, Mahfujur Rahman and Tareq Aziz.

“If they are in Burma, they are dead,” says Hassan. “But if they escaped, there is a chance I can find them.”

According to UNHCR Nepal, nearly 60% of Nepal’s refugees from Burma are single men searching for family members. When communal riots first erupted in Arakan, Hassan was working in Bangladesh as a seasonal laborer, but planned to return home to observe the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

But when he did, Hassan found an empty home amid a forsaken desert of torched houses. A neighbor said his relatives might have fled to Bangladesh during the violence, so Hassan left on a fisherman’s boat under the cover of night to examine Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar.

Finding no answers there, Hassan had few options but to follow rumors that his family might have pushed on into India. After searching fruitlessly in Darjeeling and West Bengal, Hassan went to Nepal.

For all its challenges, Nepal pales in comparison to stories Hassan says he hears from those trapped in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. And Hassan, like the majority of Rohingya, has found a sense of community with Nepal’s minority Muslim community, which accounts for a mere 4% of the population of 30 million.

“In Nepal, they don’t look at the difference between a Hindu or Muslim,” Miya tells TIME.

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime,” Hassan adds.

Yet the nagging question of missing relatives remains. Nepal is a transit point, a temporary shelter before the Rohingya weather the next storm. UNHCR has set up psychosocial counseling for refugees to alleviate earthquake-related anxiety, but the larger problem remains: How does a Rohingya refugee build a life between one location and the next? How does he track down loved ones without papers — lacking any state recognition — that remain in perennial flight, floating in seas, trundling across borders, always fleeing one threat only to face another?

In spite of its seismological perils, Nepal affords the Rohingya an opportunity to carve out a life freer than Southeast Asia, and many hope to bring kin — if they ever find them — to also settle in Kathmandu.

Though far from perfect, quake-ravaged Nepal may offer the best hope to a community whose statelessness remains a source of horrific vulnerability.

“This is the situation of the Rohingya,” says Hassan. “The person who is not a citizen anywhere has no limit to the punishment he can suffer.”

TIME Nepal

The Nepal Earthquakes Are Now the Nation’s Deadliest-Ever Disasters

Aftermath of Earthquake in Nepal
Anadolu Agency —Getty Images A Nepalese woman carrying her child walks past a destroyed building in Sankhu village in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 16, 2015.

More than 8,500 people have died as a result of the back-to-back earthquakes

On Sunday, Nepal’s Home Ministry confirmed at least 8,583 deaths from the past month’s two major earthquakes and subsequent tremors, making the combined disaster the deadliest in the country’s history, reports Reuters.

The last massive temblor to rock the landlocked Himalayan nation killed 8,519 people in 1934.

On April 25, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake erupted approximately 85 miles east of the capital, Kathmandu, killing more than 8,000 people and destroying a half-million homes nationwide. Three weeks later the country was struck again by a 7.3-magnitude tremor near Mount Everest that killed more than 100 people and triggered fresh landslides.

MORE: 6 Ways You Can Give to Nepal Earthquake Relief

U.N. officials report that millions of people remain in need of basic humanitarian assistance as the looming monsoon threatens to inundate the country’s fragile transportation network and hamper ongoing aid efforts.

[Reuters]

TIME Nepal

Six U.S. Marines Killed in Nepal Helicopter Crash Identified

Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, right, speaks during a press meet in Kathmandu
Niranjan Shrestha—AP Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, right, speaks during a press meet in Kathmandu, on May 15, 2015.

They were supporting post-earthquake relief efforts

The six U.S. Marines who died in a helicopter crash while supporting earthquake relief efforts in Nepal were identified Sunday morning.

Capt. Dustin R. Lukasiewicz of Nebraska; Capt. Christopher L. Norgren of Kansas; Sgt. Ward M. Johnson IV of Florida; Sgt. Eric M. Seaman of California; Cpl. Sara A. Medina of Illinois and Lance Cpl. Jacob A. Hug of Arizona were all killed when their UH-1Y Huey helicopter went down near Charikot, Nepal, Tuesday, according to the U.S. military.

Two Nepalese service members — identified by the Nepalese Army as Tapendra Rawal and Basanta Titara, according to The Associated Press — also died in the crash…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Nepal

All 8 Bodies Recovered From Crashed U.S. Marine Helicopter in Nepal

Nepalese soldiers prepare to leave for a rescue mission to the site where the suspected wreckage of a U.S. Marine helicopter was found, in Kathmandu
Niranjan Shrestha—AP Nepalese soldiers prepare to leave for a rescue mission to the site where the suspected wreckage of a U.S. Marine helicopter was found, in Kathmandu, on May 15, 2015.

The aircraft, with six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers on board, went missing while delivering aid on Tuesday

(KATHMANDU, Nepal)—The bodies of six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers who were aboard a U.S. Marine helicopter that crashed during a relief mission in earthquake-hit Nepal have been recovered, Nepal’s army said.

The wreckage of the UH-1 “Huey” was found Friday following days of intense searching in the mountains northeast of capital Kathmandu. The first three charred bodies were retrieved the same day by Nepalese and U.S. military teams, and the rest on Saturday, the Nepalese army said in a statement .

The aircraft went missing while delivering aid on Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of the Marine-led joint task force, said in Kathmandu on Friday that his team could not immediately determine the cause of the crash or identify the bodies found.

He described the crash as “severe,” and said the recovery team at the site encountered extreme weather and difficult terrain.

The wreckage was located about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the town of Charikot, near where the aircraft went missing while delivering humanitarian aid to villages hit by two deadly earthquakes.

The area is near Gothali village in the district of Dolakha, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Kathmandu.

The U.S. relief mission was deployed soon after a magnitude-7.8 quake hit April 25, killing more than 8,200 people. It was followed by a magnitude-7.3 quake on Tuesday that killed at least 117 people and injured around 2,800.

The helicopter had been delivering rice and tarps in Charikot, the area worst hit by Tuesday’s quake. It had dropped off supplies in one location and was en route to a second site when contact was lost.

U.S. military officials said earlier in the week that an Indian helicopter in the air nearby had heard radio chatter from the Huey aircraft about a possible fuel problem.

In Wichita, Kansas, Marine officials on Saturday notified the parents of the helicopter’s 31-year-old-pilot, Capt. Chris Norgren, that he was among those killed in the crash, a local high school president, Leticia Nielsen, told The Wichita Eagle newspaper.

A total of 300 U.S. military personnel have been supporting the aid mission in Nepal.

On Saturday, Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross, said an appeal had been made for $93 million to help some 700,000 earthquake survivors over the next two years.

The U.N. General Assembly also called for urgent assistance to help Nepal’s earthquake survivors and to rebuild the impoverished Himalayan nation, urging the international community to support the U.N.’s appeal for $415 million for essential needs over the next three months.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the assembly that it is urgent to get aid to all those in need before the monsoon season starts in June.

TIME Nepal

Missing U.S. Marine Helicopter Found Crashed Near Nepal’s Border With China

Nepalese army men search for the missing U.S. Marine helicopter in the earthquake affected Dolakha District of Nepal on May 14, 2015.
Niranjan Shrestha—AP Nepalese army men search for the missing U.S. Marine helicopter in the earthquake affected Dolakha District of Nepal on May 14, 2015.

Nepal’s Defense Secretary said three bodies had been spotted by the wreckage

The wreckage of a U.S. marine chopper on an aid mission in Nepal that was reported missing hours after the Himalayan nation was hit by a 7.3 magnitude temblor on Tuesday has been found near the country’s border with China, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said on Friday.

The wreckage of the UH-1Y Huey helicopter, which was carrying six U.S. marines and two Nepalese soldiers when it was declared missing, was found just before 2 P.M. local time in an area approximately 8 miles north of Charikot, in Nepal’s northeastern Dolakha district. “An assessment of the site is ongoing and a thorough investigation will be conducted,” U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Major David Eastburn said in an emailed statement.

Earlier, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, a spokesman for Nepal’s home ministry told TIME that the chopper had been found in Dolakha’s Kalinchok village. “It crashed in a slope near Kalinchok [Hindu] temple,” Dhakal said.

Reuters, meanwhile, quoted Iswori Prasad Paudyal, the top civil servant in Nepal’s defense ministry, as saying that three bodies had been found in the wreckage of the chopper. “The search for others is continuing. As the helicopter has broken into pieces and totally crashed there is no chance of any survivors,” he told the news agency.

The helicopter was on a mission to deliver aid to earthquake victims around 85 miles east of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu when it was declared missing. The U.S. marines were part of a joint task force set up in the aftermath of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25 that killed over 8,000 people.

The quake, which was centered in a mountainous region to the northwest of Kathmandu, was followed by a series of smaller aftershocks — and then on May 12, by violent tremors triggered by a large 7.3 magnitude rupture with an epicenter to the capital’s northeast, between Kathmandu and Mount Everest.

Dolakaha was among the districts hardest hit by the second quake on Tuesday, with the tremors knocking down buildings and killing more than 100 people in the already devastated South Asian nation.

As news of the missing U.S. chopper emerged shortly after Tuesday’s quake, American and Nepalese air and ground forces fanned out across the region in a massive search effort. Indian forces also assisted in the search, according U.S. Pacific Command.

 

TIME Nepal

Nepal Rescuers Find 3 Bodies Near Crashed U.S. Marine Chopper

Nepalese army men search for the missing U.S. Marine helicopter in the earthquake affected Dolakha District, Nepal, May 14, 2015
Niranjan Shrestha—AP Nepalese army men search for the missing U.S. Marine helicopter in the earthquake affected Dolakha District, Nepal, May 14, 2015

Six Marines and two Nepalese army soldiers were on board the helicopter

(KATHMANDU) — Nepal’s Defense Secretary Iswori Poudyal says army rescuers have found three bodies at the site where the wreckage of the U.S. Marine helicopter was found.

Poudyal gave no other details on Friday.

The aircraft had gone missing Tuesday while delivering aid in the Himalayan nation following a magnitude-7.8 earthquake on April 25.

Six Marines and two Nepalese army soldiers were on board.

A Nepalese army rescue helicopter on Friday spotted the wreckage of a missing U.S. Marine chopper in the mountains northeast of Kathmandu, but the fate of the six Marines and two Nepalese aboard the aircraft was not immediately clear.

No signs of life could be seen from the air, said Nepal’s army chief of army operations Maj. Gen. Binoj Basnyat. He gave no other information, saying ground troops were being sent to the district of Dolakha, where the wreckage was spotted.

The Marine helicopter was on a rescue and relief mission following the second earthquake that hit the Himalayan nation. Many areas in that mountainous region of Nepal are not reachable by air or road.

The U.S. Embassy in Nepal had no immediate comment Friday.

Tuesday’s magnitude-7.3 quake killed 117 people and injured 2,800. It struck just 2 1/2 weeks after the country was battered by a magnitude-7.8 quake that killed more than 8,200 people.

TIME portfolio

James Nachtwey’s Latest Dispatches From Nepal

TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey reports from the quake-devastated country

This is second part in a two-part series of dispatches filed by TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey from Nepal, days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated parts of the central Asian country. Read part one.

The mountains of Nepal are weeping. The restless earth shifted, and thousands of people perished. Many more thousands have been injured. Hundreds of villages have been flattened. Stone houses made by hand were literally shaken apart. But what was created by hand can be rebuilt the same way, and that is exactly what the Nepalese villagers are doing. What can never be replaced are the loved ones, many of whom are still being discovered buried beneath the rubble.

Having witnessed the destruction in Kathmandu and surrounding towns, I attempted to see what had happened in the remote mountain villages. The epicenter of the quake was located in Gorkha District, most of which was inaccessible, except by helicopter. The 301 and 206 Aviation Squadrons of the Indian Army were flying out of Pokhara, airlifting food and supplies and evacuating the injured. It was a fast paced, non-stop operation that required highly skilled pilots to land with very little clearance on small terraced fields carved into the steep mountainsides. Some flights could find no place to land. Others hovered and shoved food, blankets and tarps out of the open helicopter doors.

Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

One mission took us to an extremely remote Buddhist monastery deep in the snow-covered, high Himalayas to evacuate a group of young monks from their damaged dwellings.

Barpak is one of the larger villages in the district. 1,200 out of 1,475 houses were destroyed. 69 people were killed. Some are still missing. 150 were seriously injured. The inhabitants quickly began the rebuilding process. Furniture, utensils and personal possessions were slowly salvaged from the ruins, and piece-by-piece, individual stones, wooden planks and corrugated metal, were retrieved and sorted, to be used again. The people were on their own, fending for themselves, as they always had.

A rescue team discovered Pur Bahadur Gurung, 26, buried in the wreckage of a house. Only then did the natural stoicism of the people break down.

International Medical Corps flew into the village of Gumda and set up a two-day, mobile health clinic. As in Barpak, the people busied themselves with dismantling the ruins in order to rebuild. Rejina Gurung, aged 3, was found beneath a fallen roof, and alongside four others from the village who had died, was buried in a field overlooking a broad valley, far below.

The Nepalese are known for their strength and self-reliance, their equanimity, friendliness and spirituality. As their character was being tested by a natural disaster, they revealed an unshakeable resilience. It became clear that who they are has been forged in hardship and closeness to nature.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

TIME Innovation

How Survivors in Nepal Are Getting Better Earthquake Aid

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. When local systems failed them, survivors in Nepal lifehacked earthquake aid.

By Abe Streep in Wired

2. Can the same brain drain that’s crippling health care in Africa be used to save it?

By Serufusa Sekidde in Project Syndicate

3. Find out how female Marines are getting the job done.

By Hope Hodge Seck in the Marine Corps Times

4. Learning to use a drill is good. Learning to run the plant is better.

By Sophie Quinton in National Journal

5. We might be able to starve cancer cells to death.

By Sandia National Laboratories

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Nepal

Rescue Efforts Resume After Second Nepal Earthquake Amid Landslide Fears

The upcoming monsoon could affect the already volatile region, experts say

Rescue operations gradually resumed in Nepal on Wednesday amid periodic aftershocks and fears of landslides, one day after a second major earthquake within three weeks rocked the Himalayan nation.

Thousands of Nepalis spent the night in the open after the fresh temblor on Tuesday afternoon, while several have still not returned home after the larger earthquake on April 25 that ripped through the country and claimed over 8,000 lives.

Tuesday’s earthquake measured 7.3 on the Richter scale against the 7.8 magnitude of the previous one, and left 65 dead and around 2,000 injured, reports the BBC. The epicenter was in Namche Bazaar, a popular town on the route to Mount Everest about 76 km from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, but its impact was felt as far as India, where 17 people died in the eastern state of Bihar, and Tibet, where one person was killed in a landslide.

Landslides are an increasing possibility in the still volatile mountain region, and the onset of the monsoons in subsequent months only heightens the potential risk.

“It’s not safe here,” Ram Tamang, a resident of Jure village who lost his wife, mother and three children in a landslide last August, told Reuters. “Last night it was raining hard the whole night and I couldn’t sleep. I’m always worried another landslide will come.”

Hundreds of Nepali troops gathered in the country’s northeastern Charikot district, meanwhile, searching for a U.S. Marine helicopter that went missing on Tuesday while delivering aid to a local village. The UH-1Y Huey helicopter had six Marines and two Nepali soldiers on board, and was reportedly heard talking about fuel problems.

“The info we have is that it is down in one of the rivers, but none of the choppers has seen it yet,” Major Rajan Dahal, second in command of the Barda Bahadur Battalion, told Reuters. “There are 400-plus of our ground troops looking for it also,” he said, in addition to the six other helicopters conducting an aerial search. “By this evening, we might get it.”

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