- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

THAPRA, Nepal The rains had stopped by the time help came, more than a day after the earth tore loose from itself, thundered down the steep Himalayan foothills last week and obliterated this farming village of slate-roofed, whitewashed houses.

"The land was boiling, it was melting away," said Indra Basnet, two days after the landslide clawed out his home and his fields, leaving his family for reasons he still cannot explain uninjured.

In Thapra, this is what the monsoon rains, and the landslide they caused, have wrought: 41 persons dead, 33 homes destroyed, and the annihilation of a village that endured for 11 or more generations along a hillside so steep that the only roads are narrow mountain trails, and the only way to travel them is by foot.

It took nearly a day for word to reach the outside world that a landslide had happened, and almost another for the weather to clear so a military helicopter could fly from Katmandu, Nepal's capital, some 125 miles away, with help.

By that time, there was nothing to be done for the dozens of people buried in the mud, or swept away by the roiling river at the base of the hill. Only 13 bodies were found.

If a few houses are left in Thapra, no one will live in them anymore.

"We've given up hope," Mr. Basnet said. "We're afraid to come back."

The aftermath in ruggedly beautiful Thapra is just one tiny piece of what was left behind by the monsoon, which sweeps across Asia every year from June to September.

While farmers need the rains for their crops, all too often the downpours come with a terrible force. Across a large swath of the continent, from India to China, Nepal to Bangladesh, villagers have been drowned, crushed under collapsing houses, bitten by deadly snakes or washed away by rivers. More than 2,000 people have died.

It is, in many ways, an old story. The flood's victims are largely ignored by their governments, by the local press and by the international media, victims of the savage sameness of the annual flooding.

It is hard to comprehend the suffering caused by the monsoon.

Recent floods in Europe killed 113 persons. In Asia, by some estimates, more than 25 million people have been displaced by flooding. In India, some 16 million people have fled their homes; in Bangladesh, it's 7 million, in China, 270,000 were evacuated, and hundreds of thousands in Nepal.

Where do they go? Wherever they can. Many go just a few hundred yards away, seeking high ground on road embankments or small hills, and wait out the rains under huts fashioned from plastic sheets and sticks.

Some head for government-organized relocation centers, often in schools, or to nearby villages.

It is the poor who suffer the most from the monsoons, and in a part of the world where poverty often means earning less than $1 a day, there is no money for hotels, or often even a bus ride to dry ground.

In eastern India, Bindeswari Gupta sat on a rocky outcropping last week in the village of Rasonkh, looking at farm fields submerged under 12 feet of water.

He has seen similar sights many times. "Once the waters recede, we slowly pick our way back to our villages and begin rebuilding our huts, with whatever we find bamboo poles, tarpaulin, wooden planks or, if we're lucky, a sheet of asbestos," he said.

For now, he is living in school buildings on high ground, with many of his fellow villagers.

In Thapra, some survivors headed to neighboring villages, but most are living in huts they have fashioned a few hundred yards away. Like Mr. Gupta, they have built housing from whatever they can find.

Few have any idea what will happen to them. Most fear that the landslides still could reach them.

"If help doesn't come and we get moved somewhere else, we will die," said Rudra Bahadur. "Maybe after a day, maybe after two days, maybe after a year. But one day we'll be killed."

The villagers say government assistance has been minimal. Soldiers and health authorities flown in by helicopter have distributed rice and helped dispose of some bodies, but there has been no concerted effort to get them assistance.

"We don't have the money to leave, and now what we had our farmland has been swept away. The government gives us relief, a bag of rice, but that's not enough to survive," Mr. Basnet said.

Many governments appear to have little interest in flood victims. While most insist they are doing what they can to help them and some are trying hard others are doing next to nothing.

In India's cash-strapped Bihar state, scene of some of the worst flooding in that country this year, the frequency of the floods has left the state government indifferent.

"The government is not bothered, and even it were, there's precious little it can do considering the scale of destruction. So they do nothing," said A.C. Pandey, a Bihar state official.

Despite such stories, the floods bore much of the region's media.

"Floods don't have disaster value anymore. It's an annual phenomenon, so newspaper editors are indifferent," said Ajit Bhattacharjea, media analyst and director of the New Delhi-based Press Institute of India.

But in villages such as Thapra, the reality cannot be ignored.

Nearly the entire village was wiped out by the landslide, which hit at 4 a.m. Aug. 21 after days of rains had left the soil vulnerable to shifting.

The crush of dirt and rocks ripped away a stretch of hillside more than 1,600 feet wide and just as long. What is left is a litany of destroyed lives: torn clothing, bent tin roofs, muddy shoes, school exam booklets. Near the edge of the debris field, the corpse of an infant girl lay exposed, covered in mud and flies. From a distance, she looked like a doll.

In Thapra, the monsoon's toll is announced with the low, mournful bellow of an old man blowing into a conch shell, a sound heard at different religious ceremonies as an invocation to the gods. Eight days ago, the corpse being prepared belonged to Amar Bahadur Khadga, an 18-year-old who had been working his way through elementary school. He was wrapped in a saffron sheet, draped in a garland of bright red flowers, and carried on a bamboo litter to the edge of the Likhu River, where he was cremated.

"It would have been better if I died," said his father, Chandra Khadga, 60, touching his hand to his heart. "My son was so young. But it's God's wish, and I can't do anything about it."

At least he had someone to bury. Many here do not. Their relatives lie under tons of rock and dirt, and the only sign of them is the stench of rotting flesh.

For the villagers, all of them Hindu, proper cremation is desperately important. While the correct rites can speed the dead to heaven, if they are done wrongly the spirit can be trapped.

Now, some say, the dead have come back to Thapra.

"They started haunting us that afternoon" after the landslide, said Mr. Basnet, "and they will keep haunting us."

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