Sonam leadding the Trek for Rebuilding to aid remote communities affected by the earthquake

Former student Sonam Lama has been hard at work since the first of two devasting earthquakes to hit his native Nepal, the nation’s deadliest ever.  Having trained specifically as an emergency architect and dedicated his young career to preserving cultural heritage in his country, the tragedy is one especially close to his heart. Within days, Sonam set up the Tsum Nubri Relief and Recovery Program to provide relief and rebuilding services to Tsum and Nubri, the most isolated regions in the Gorkha district of Nepal where most homes have been destroyed by the earthquake and aid is scarce. Sonam grew up in Tsum and in an effort to preserve its cultural heritage, has spent the last few years carrying out a first-ever inventory of the region’s precious mani, or ancient monuments, which has now become an invaluable survey in light of the destruction of Nepal’s most significant cultural landmarks.

An ancient monument before and after the earthquake

The isolated regions of Tsum and Nubri where Sonam is concentrating his efforts are only accessible on foot or by helicopter, making aid difficult and expensive.

Sonam and his team have just returned to Kathmandu after embarking on their Trek for Re-building, in which they assisted 10,000 inhabitants of the severely affected regions of Tsum, Nubri, Kutang & Sirdibas. They rescued over 1000 Buddha statues, spread awareness about earthquake preparedness, and aided rebuilding efforts in several villages connected by a single 300-kilometer foot trail otherwise only accessible by helicopter. As a Tsum Valley native and its cultural ambassador in Kathmandu, Sonam is poised to make a genuine impact on rebuilding lives in a place that he knows like the back of his hand. You can now donate to his local Tsum Nubri Relief & Recovery program through indiegogo, which has already raised over $18,000 in funds.

The Tsum Nubri rebuilding team in action

Ripchet, the most affected village in Tsum, where 37 houses collapsed.

In the following article that Sonam sent us about two weeks after the first earthquake, he shares his experience on that pivotal day and how he remained safe thanks to open land and a bit of luck, and is now making it his mission to help those who were less fortunate. He also takes the opportunity to comment on the realities of how the lack of adequate safety measures, poverty and corruption are issues that developing countries like Nepal must overcome to achieve resilience in the face of disaster.


Thanks to open land
by Sonam Lama

Two weeks before the earthquake I applied for an earthquake-related international training course in Japan and Germany and wrote a few pages about Nepal’s earthquake vulnerability and the need to protect open land in a crowded city like Kathmandu. How to do this is a challenge in this and any rapidly urbanizing city.

Trained as an emergency architect and urban planner, and as a professor of architecture, I’ve always had a deep concern about earthquake vulnerability and the way we build cities here in Kathmandu and in other developing parts of the world. I practiced as an architect for two years after my bachelor’s degree in Kathmandu, which was enough to learn the extent to which bureaucracy and corruption here interferes with the implementation of design. Although we have a good architecture school where training in building safety and earthquake risk are at the core of the curriculum, the lack of country and city-specific governance leads to a corrupt process in which even those who do follow the rules are often forced to bribe.

A fourteen year old boy stands in-front of his collapsed house in Ripchet

It is now wonder that people have lost faith in the law, and sadly, that disasters like the one we are experiencing now serve to teach us a lesson.

Amidst the trauma and sense of loss during this enormous tragedy in Nepal, I am thankful to be alive. The last two days have been filled with fear, anxiety, loss and a sense of being trapped. The guilt I felt for being alive and safe but not being able to help as much as I could wore me down. I decided to write down my experience of the earthquake to reflect, above all, the resilience of the Nepali people. I also believe it can help us to be better prepared for future disasters.

This is my account of what happened on the day of the earthquake.

The neighborhood where I live was a paddy field before being built up about 10 years ago. Everyone is always amazed by how fast we can turn an open piece of land into one full of buildings. That fateful Saturday morning, as I finished my long morning walk from Kopan hill, I made a spontaneous plan to book tickets for myself and my friend to watch the anticipated Nepali movie Resham Filili at KL Tower. I texted my friend, “tickets are booked please be there at 4pm”.

I got a call from another village friend who wanted to visit me. He didn’t know my home, so for the sake of orientation, I told him to wait near the open wheat field close to my home. In Nepal, street addresses and house numbers don’t exist. I was already running late when I crossed paths with my monk friend who offered me a tour of the Kopan monastery, and whom I couldn’t reject out of respect. Although I had already visited the monastery a few times, he took time to show me around and explain things in detail. As soon we were done, I rushed out again and bumped into another family who invited me for tea. My village friend kept calling me to ask about our meeting point and once again referred to the open land located about 5 minutes walk from my home. I kept repeating “open land” to him, as the connection was lost.

An open field in Sonam’s neighborhood in Kathmandu, where he helped to set up tents as a safe refuge.

I looked at my watch and it was 10:41am when I headed towards the open land. After a forty-minute walk, I decided to take a short cut to not keep my friend waiting. Barely seconds had passed after crossing the labyrinth of narrow streets lined with tall buildings when I suddenly felt a vibration com from the north-west, together with a strong gush of wind and an unexpected noise of rattling earth and buildings. Fear gripped the people for an endless five minutes. There was the sound of crows cawing and flying, of children and adults screaming, of buildings collapsing, and of bricks tumbling from unfinished houses amidst clouds of dust.

Despite fear and nerves, everyone’s instinct had drawn them to open land. The women harvesting the wheat field that I had designated as a meeting point, though terrified, had remained safe. Within minutes, people were coming out from all directions into the open space. I had completely forgotten about my initial mission to meet my friend, and I was able to quickly post online that I was ok and to request prayers for the Nepali people. A few minutes had seemed like an eternity. I looked around and could see hundreds of people in total shock.

About an hour later, the shaking had settled. I gazed at the crowds and saw my friend looking for me. I called him over and unaware of what had just happened, he laughed and tried to make light of it until we saw a pregnant woman being tended to by two other women. He told me then he felt his heart was cold. He immediately called his wife, who was lucky to have reached the open field in time as well. I called my sister to make sure she was ok. I got another call from my brother from my hometown of Tsum. All the houses there had collapsed, but the families were safe, having too been able to seek the safety of open land.

Thankfully, there are still a few empty community-owned lots in my town. Something so simple as open fields had provided safety and saved hundreds of lives in my neighborhood and in so many other places hit by the earthquake in Nepal. What’s more, they provided a place for us to set up camps, help each other and share food, clothes and water while we get back on our feet.

Sonam and his colleagues founding the Tsum Nubri Relief & Recovery Program

Open land wouldn’t be so crucial to survival, however, if our buildings were earthquake-resistant. As the saying goes, earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. As I mentioned earlier, corruption here gets in the way of safe design. But now is not the time to point fingers and lay blame. I would rather focus my energy on finding ways to recover from this post-disaster situation and transition to long-term development plans. Right now, what we must do is call on our government and relevant agencies to support professionals and volunteers that are specifically trained in building safety, in order to ensure that we build back better and are resilient when the next disaster strikes.

Rest in peace for those who lost their lives in this tragic time.

The village where Sonam was born and raised, 90% destroyed by the earthquake.

Originating from Tsum Valley in the Nepalese Himalaya, Sonam Lama graduated from Pokhara University, Nepal Engineering College in Architecture in 2007. After working at a local NGO and an internship at the International Centre for Integated Mountain Development-ICIMOD, he found his work in commercial architecture firms overwhelming due to the challenges of Kathmandu’s haphazard urbanization and its vulnerability to earthquakes, encouraging him to persue a master’s degree in International Cooperation and Urban Development from Germany with a track year at our program. After graduating he started walk4heritage, an inventory study of architectural heritage in Tsum Valley, and in 2013, together with his former classmate Ella Chau, launched Mani, The Hidden Valley of Happiness at a Crossroads, a documentary on a controversial road development threatening the preservation of architectural landmarks in one the most isolated regions of the Nepalese Himalaya. He is currently contributing to the post-earthquake rebuilding efforts in Nepal through his local Tsum Nubri Relief & Recovery Program, which aids communities in the remote area of Tsum Valley, where Sonam grew up and has focused his research. Please support his program here. For updates, follow Tsum Nubri Relief & Recovery Program on FB.


Note: This article was edited by Ana Cañizares with permission from the author. All photos © Sonam Lama

One Comment

  • Thank you for your account. I am so glad for your open areas and that your life and the lives of others are safe. Thank you for your work and may it go well with new shrines from the saved.

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