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In our global village an earthquake wreaks havoc 

By Tom Ryan, CSP

05/06/2015


Reference to our world today as a “global village” has become commonplace. And one of the blessings of tourist travel in our time is that it gives us an opportunity to visit far-flung “neighborhoods” in this global village and experience them up close. One of the fruits of such experience is an appreciation for the unique characteristics of the people and culture, the art and architecture, the food and natural environment of that country.

This past February I co-led a three-week interfaith and intercultural study tour with 25 people to India and Nepal. In Nepal, we were regaled by the historic glories of Kathmandu, the charm of mountain villages and the breathtaking peaks of the Himalayas. If someone had said to us that in less than nine weeks after our return much of what we had seen in city and village would be reduced to rubble, we would neither have been able to comprehend it or believe it.

When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck, leaving centuries-old temples in Durbar Square — the historic heart of Kathmandu — lying in ruins, we felt with particular acuteness even as far away as North America the emotional and psychological shock-waves. Yes, “global village.” And the number of those who lost their lives continues to mount each day as more and more bodies, presently numbering over 5,000, are discovered amidst the catastrophic debris.

Our hearts went out to all, especially to those whom we had met and spent time with there. Such is the solidarity and empathy born of travel. Members of our group dug up contact info from our guides and sent them word of our prayers and concern for them, asking to hear from them.

We learned that one of them, an American Jesuit who teaches in Kathmandu and who has spent the last 30 years of his ministry in Nepal, had been on a visit to his home New England province in the U.S. and was flying back to Nepal the day the earthquake struck. He said it took him longer to get from the Kathmandu airport to where he lived than it did to fly to Kathmandu. Such was the chaos and destruction of roads splitting, buildings collapsing, and crowds of people fleeing to open ground where bricks and mortar could not fall on them.

Four of the area’s seven Unesco World Heritage sites were severely damaged in the earthquake: Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a temple complex built in the shape of a conch shell; Patan Durbar Square, which dates to the third century; Basantapur Durbar Square, which was the residence of Nepal’s royal family until the 19th century; and the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas.

In our visits to these historic sites in Nepal, no one ever mentioned that the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction issued a report in 2012 that called Nepal “a tragedy in waiting.” We were not aware that Nepal is particularly prone to earthquakes because it is at the junction of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. And when we looked in awe at the setting sun on the Himalayan snow-capped peaks, none of us was aware that what gave rise to these very mountains was the collision of tectonic plates millions of years ago, and that the still-moving Indian plate pushes the mountains a few millimeters higher every year. There was an earthquake in 1934 even bigger than this one.

The Washington Post reported that the orthodoxy among seismologists is that earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people. And Kathmandu was high on the list of cities most vulnerable to a catastrophic earthquake because of the marked degree of recent urban development where people inhabit newly constructed, unreinforced-masonry buildings that in many cases are not designed to withstand the strong motion of a quake. An expert on Himalayan earthquakes quoted in the Post said that the scope of reconstruction required to strengthen all the buildings in Kathmandu is enormous, and that “you’re up against a Himalayan-scale problem with Third World resources.”

Our offerings, both material and spiritual, will be appreciatively received by the survivors whose lives are presently in literal shambles.

Yes, we do now live in a global village. Travel and our worldwide web of communication only heightens that awareness.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.