You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Return to the valley of tears

BBC News BBC News 22/04/2016
Dawa Sherpa © BBC Dawa Sherpa

A year ago, nearly 9,000 people died and more than 20,000 were injured when an earthquake struck Nepal. Justin Rowlatt was the first journalist to reach the village of Langtang after the quake - now he's been back.

White line 10 pixels © BBC White line 10 pixels

It is easy to understand why Langtang is such a popular destination for trekkers. The valley is breathtakingly beautiful. The crashing river that carved it out snakes through the high Himalayas, a pine forest on either side.

Now there are just rocks - bare earth: Now there is little more than rocks © BBC Now there is little more than rocks

But I was anxious as I flew back in a small helicopter a few days ago. The last time I had been here I had found a community in terrible trauma.

"We have lost everything," Dendup Lama said in 2015 © BBC "We have lost everything," Dendup Lama said in 2015

The main town, also called Langtang, had been utterly destroyed. The scale of the devastation was so complete it was hard to work it out when flying over it.

Just one house was left standing © BBC Just one house was left standing

Find out more

Some of the dead © BBC Some of the dead

From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world

The villagers are busy rebuilding © BBC The villagers are busy rebuilding

Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30

Woman praying © BBC Woman praying

My eyes were drawn to the wreckage of the buildings standing on a small hill, not to the great plume of debris fanning out into the valley.

Women praying at a memorial service © BBC Women praying at a memorial service

But that was where the busy little tourist town had been.

Tashi left his family behind to load up his horse - he never saw them again: Tashi left his family to go and load up his horse - he never saw them again © BBC Tashi left his family to go and load up his horse - he never saw them again

The earthquake had triggered an avalanche and a landslide which had buried the entire place under who knows how many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rocks and boulders, and snow and ice.

Dawa Sherpa lost his wife, son and grandson - he hasn't slept for a year: Dawa Sherpa has been unable to sleep since he lost his family © BBC Dawa Sherpa has been unable to sleep since he lost his family

The locals here are ethnically Tibetan. They're tough mountain people but as we hiked down from where the helicopter had dropped us, everyone I spoke to burst into tears.

A view from the helicopter shows the landslide © BBC A view from the helicopter shows the landslide

"We have lost everything," Dendup Lama told me, his eyes red raw. "Everyone has lost family here."

prayer flags © BBC prayer flags

Just one house remained, sheltered under a great shoulder of rock.

On a field beside the debris, 52 bodies had been laid out side-by-side.

As we watched they brought out another one. A tourist. A young woman. Her hair hung limply down from the stretcher. There was something so intimate and so appalling about the sight that I, too, broke down in tears.

We now know that at least 215 people died here, among them dozens of foreign tourists.

A year on and Dendup Lama met me from the helicopter. We hugged. He was all smiles and warm welcomes.

He showed us the guesthouse he's built in the village at the top of the valley. Most of the survivors have moved up here too.

Many are still living in temporary accommodation - flimsy huts made of corrugated iron - but as we sipped hot tea in the cold mountain air, I could hear the sound of sawing and hammering all around me.

This is a community trying to rebuild itself.

The next morning we joined the survivors as they went back to the site of Langtang village.

According to the Tibetan calendar it was the anniversary of the catastrophe and what is left of the community was gathering to do puja - prayers - for the dead.

But as they prayed with their spiritual leader, it became clear just how close to the surface the tragedy still is.

Dendup led me down to where the snow and ice had melted away like a tide, revealing the wreckage of a few of the buildings.

He showed me where he had dug his mother's body from the ruins of the guesthouse she had run.

He turned his face away from me - silent for a moment.

Another man told me how he and his wife had been planning to move to the village at the top of the valley.

He had left her and his daughter having tea with his mother-in-law while he went to load up the horse.

Fifteen minutes later the earthquake hit. They were all killed.

"Just 15 minutes, that is all," he said, his eyes still hollow with grief.

Dawa Sherpa lost his wife, his son and his grandson. Now there is only me, he said.

"Whenever I close my eyes their memories come and haunt me. I haven't slept for a year." Tears ran down his face.

As we left the valley I asked the helicopter pilot to take us up into the mountains above the town. The chopper flew close the great rocky walls of the mountain valley, riding the updrafts.

The scale of what had happened was all too apparent here. Now I could see that the whole side of a glacier had sheared off and crashed down into the valley bellow, sweeping with it the rocks and debris. A team of geologists estimated the force of the impact was equivalent to half that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

As we flew back to Kathmandu we passed the wreckage of a monastery. A forest of white prayer flags fluttered in the wind, one for every villager who had died.

Many of us have experienced the misery of the loss of a loved one. But fortunately, few of us will ever experience the trauma of loss on this scale.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

More From BBC News

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon