24 April 2016

Growing up at the Epicenter

In Nepal’s quake-affected village, a young mother struggles to raise her daughter born on the day of earthquake.

By Avinashi Paudel

Amita Gurung holds her 11-month-old daughter Arpita, Photo by Chandra Shekhar Karki for UNICEF.

Gorkha, Nepal- “I love my daughter the most in the whole world,” said Amita Gurung, holding her baby daughter Arpita tightly in her arms. "But when I think of the day she was born, I feel like crying."

That  was the day when a devastating earthquake shook central Nepal in April last year. Amita's village was at the epicenter of the quake.

It was a dull Saturday noon that day. Nine-month pregnant Amita was lying lazily on bed watching television. Suddenly she heard a rattling sound and heard her sister screaming ‘Earthquake!

Earthquake!’ How the heavily pregnant Amita dragged herself out of the collapsing house when the whole world seemed to be rocking still feels like a bad dream for this young mother.

In her Snan village of Barpak Village Development Committee (VDC) many people had gathered together and were retreiving foodstuff from the rubble of a village shop. A couple of hours after the earthquake, Amita felt stomach ache. She told her father-in-law about the pain, and he immediately reckoned it as labor pain. Soon enough Amita was taken inside a cowshed.

After three intense hours of labour pain baby Arpita’s first cries seemed  to bring back a little bit of life in Snan. Families and villagers had felt awed by the power of the nature to create doom and bloom at the same time.

“So many people died in the village that day. But we two were alive,” sighed Amita. “It felt weird but I was happy that we two survived.”

Amita Gurung holds her 11-month-old daughter Arpita, Photo by Chandra Shekhar Karki for UNICEF.

After Arpita’s birth, the new mother’s nascent happiness was overpowered by primal worries of survival. “Everything was destroyed and buried, I was worried about what to eat, what to wear, where to sleep” recalled Amita. “I wondered about whether the constant shaking would harm my daughter”.

Amita had planned to go to the health center to give birth. But nothing had gone as planned. She could not even meet the Female Community Health Volunteer (FCHV) when she had labor pain. “I thought the health post might as well have been destroyed and I was worried how I and my daughter would get medicine if we needed any,” she said.

Amita is thankful to her family members who cared for her even when everyone was obsessed with one’s own safety. Despite the odds, they brought her hot water to drink, boiled instant noodles to eat. They immidialty scraped together wood and clothes to make a makeshift bed for the new mother and the daughter. Later on they fetched ghee, rice and eggs and fulfilled her nutritional need.

Like many youths of her village, Amita’s husband has gone abroad to UAE for work. He saw what his daughter looked like when Amita  managed to upload  Arpita's photo through a friend's acocunt. “He said our daughter looked beautiful !”  she said with a grin.

Nearly a year after the earthquake, Amita is still living in the CGI shelter away from her original village with 40 other families. Before the earthquake, Amita had a clean and beautiful house. There was a smokeless stove inside the house, and a toilet and water tap were close by the house. “ But it is very uncomfortable living in here specially when it rains, and it is accompanied by hailstone and strong winds” said Amita. “The toilet is far away and stinks. The tap is also far off and water is in short supply.”

Despite the deplorable living condition, Amita has made sure that Arpita got all the required doses of vaccines. She frequently discusses with the  FCHV on how to take better care of her daughter and what to feed her. Arpita seems like an alert baby, about to take her steps, but her mother is worried about her.  She rues that she has not been able to provide her with a healthier and better home to grow up in. "Arpita falls sick often with bad wheezing cough," she said. “It might be because of the excessive cold under the CGI sheets and also due to the smoke from cooking indoors.”

Though unsure about when she will be able to give her daughter a better life, in more stable conditions, there is one thing that this mother is determined to do. Married at a tender age and not being able to pursue her education due to her pregnancy, Amita is determined not to let her daughter face the same fate. “I want my daughter’s future to be a lot different than mine," said Amita. "I want her to be as educated as she wants to be!”

In Nepal’s 14 worst affected districts by the earthquake, UNICEF is working with the government of Nepal and other development partners to strenghten health, education, nutrition and WASH facilities and services for quake-affected 1.1 million children like Arpita.

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