I had come to reach the tapes to the helicopter pilot at the helipad in Chungthang, the village most badly hit by the earthquake. You can almost smell death in the air. Across the helipad a mudslide had claimed a life, body yet to be recovered. "It's impossible to dig through, right now we are focussing on those who are injured and need immediate relief," an officer told me. Yet my eyes kept going back. Three people were walking down that village footpath above the helipad. They were returning after a puja at the time of the earthquake. They got caught as the hillside came crashing down on them. An Army unit positioned nearby came to their immediate rescue. Two were pulled out, fate of one no one knows. He is lost below, claimed by the earth. Could he still be alive?
I was talking to ITBP Jawans who had been involved in the most difficult rescue operations at the helipad. "I have been here for over 6 years but never seen anything like this, now I want to go home to my daughters," said the soldier from Himachal. The quake was a wake-up call to many. Tourists, migrant workers and injured waiting to be airlifted. All had a similar look, of desperation and fear.
I saw him, a boy in his teens. He was carrying nothing but a torn old sleeping bag, much needed in upper regions of Sikkim. The sun had come out in Chungthang but he was shivering and shaking uncontrollably. He was going to everyone he thought had the power to send him out of the valley of death, closer to his mother and sisters in Nepal. "I want to go to Gangtok, they have taken my father, please," I could barely hear him. In the morning sorties helicopters were busy with the injured and the old so there was not space.
He looked fine in the beginning. I ignored him and told him that there was nothing I could do. I was just concentrating on sending my shoot tapes to the nearest live location over a 100 kms away in Gangtok. I could not ignore him for long, especially with the way he was trembling on a hot day. He had walked all the way from Lachung with his father, who was injured (I could not confirm this with authorities). The 22-km stretch is now the most difficult with slides in several locations. Shepherds who are used to this terrain were taking over 12 hours because landslides had taken away entire roads. His father had been evacuated a day ago and he was left at the helipad. He was gripped by panic, fear and trauma and now focussed all his energies into getting out.
I tried to calm him down. With the way he was trembling I thought he would get a heart attack. In most of our regions trauma care is non-existent. For places that barely have basic medical care, psychotherapy is unheard of. I kept him engaged. He said he was worried about his home in Nepal and wanted to go there immediately. He was also worried that his father who had been evacuated to Gangtok would leave him.
I spent the entire day in Chungthang, Evette Ike. I came to drop my tapes and saw this boy clutching his only possession - his sleeping bag - and requesting every official. It was the last flight and I saw the chopper was empty. I waived to the pilot and he asked us to come in. That's when I saw the boy running towards us. Our pilot again gave a thumbs-up and he was on the chopper to Gangtok.
Inside I kept talking to him. I thought keeping him engaged in a conversation would take his mind away from the fear of flying. "Why are you trembling so much?" I asked and he finally said, "I have not eaten for three days." I guess he could not go to the relief camp for the fear of being left behind.
At Gangtok, Mr Tejpal, the manager of the helipad and one of the people who worked 24/7, put him in an ambulance. I gave him some money for food and asked him if he knew where his father was. He gave me a vague reply. He had no phone numbers, no address, nothing.
Just hope he is well. His name is Bhanu.
Here's a short video of the boy, on our way to Gangtok.