— eyewitness report by Fr Amalraj for the Bhutan News Service —
By Fr Amalraj, Damak
The day was March 22. It is hard to believe that two fire accidents could take place on the same day in two refugee camps. From all information collected in both the camps, it was accidental and not purposely done.
It was 7:22 am when fire broke out in one of the houses in Goldhap. The blowing wind carried the flame from hut to hut. The fire became uncontrollable. In ninety minutes, 512 huts out of 605 were reduced to ashes. Fire brigade was called. They moved into action and yet they could not arrest the fast spreading fire. Along with the huts our Child Play Centre and Youth Friendly Centre were totally consumed by fire and nothing could be salvaged. All the materials in our Palliative Care Centre were burnt out. The fire also engulfed the Health Centre run by Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA) Nepal.
Elderly fire victim checks her belongings in Goldhap/Jeetan Subba
The Caritas/JRS Nepal team was the first to reach Goldhap and be with the victims of fire. As our school has brick wall and tin sheet roofing, it was not affected. Hence it has become now the shelter for about 3,800 people displaced by fire. The Armed Police Force (APF) at Goldhap and additional deployed force helped the fire brigade in fire fighting. And, they also provided the needed security for the fire victims.
A task force consisting of the camp Refugee Coordinating Unit Supervisor, Camp Secretary, Field Assistant of UNHCR and one member from each of the Implementing Partners (Caritas Nepal, AMDA, TPO and LWF) of UNHCR, IOM and WFP was formed to coordinate the relief operation. Each Agency was asked what would be its contribution.
As Caritas Nepal’s main mandate is education and as the class ten Common Board Exam was commencing on 24th March, we said that we would look after our 78 students who would be appearing for this exam from 24th March to 1st of April by giving them all the books and stationeries, by providing board and lodge and other facilities at Deonia Jesuit School so that the students could concentrate and write their exam peacefully even though their huts are being burnt down and that they have lost everything.
The Nepal Red Cross Society came forward to give a package of one blanket, one Sari, three cooking pots, two plates, two bowls, two glasses and a tarpaulin sheet. The World Food Programme promised to give special ration. The AMDA Nepal said it will run the health centre in the make shift tent.
Likewise, the Lutheran World Federation committed to supply protected drinking water and sanitation. TPO said that they would provide trauma counselling. The APF and the Camp Watch Team would provide the security. As people had not taken any food and had lost everything as it would take longer time to start community kitchens, this task force requested Caritas/JRS Nepal as it has done previously when fire accidents had occurred in the camp to provide a minimum quantity of ready made food to all the victims. We bought 130 cartons of instant noodles for 3,800 fire victims and six cartons of biscuits for children of under two years costing Rs. 45,000.
Caritas Field Director Fr Amalraj (third from left in the first row) inspecting Goldhap camp on April 24, 2008.
The local radio stations have published the news of this fire break out and the camp was burning uncontrollably. Hearing this news about 4,000 refugees from the other six camps came to Goldhap by hiring buses, trucks, tractors, mini vans and by cycles to express solidarity and to offer solace. There were another one thousand locals who had come to see the devastation. About fifty core team members of the Youth Friendly Centres from the six camps volunteered to render any service to the fire victims. They were formed into three teams to identify and help the old, sick and the disabled people, to assist the camp management committee in the distribution of food and other relief supplies, and to be at the service of AMDA in rendering first aid.
As per the camp consolidation and merger plan, Goldhap Camp was supposed to be merged with Beldangi Camps and it would be closed by 30th June. What an irony it was to see the camp burnt down in this manner! Since all the people of Goldhap Camp were supposed to be relocated from April 4th to 30th June one wonders what type of temporary shelters that UNHCR provides for these people. Goldhap fire disaster is a massive one and its impact is heavy on the victims. Relief has to be provided to this people whether they have opted or not opted for resettlement.
As we were planning and mobilizing the immediate relief at Goldhap around 2:30 pm we heard that there is another fire accident at Sanischare Camp. We didn’t believe it initially. The phone calls one after another conformed that it was true. The fire broke out around 2:25 pm in one of the huts in Sector B/2 and in forty-five minutes hundred and eighty huts were reduced to ashes. As all the fire brigades were busy in Goldhap by the time they could reach Sanischare the fire was brought under control.
As the space between the rows of huts was very narrow, people could not salvage anything. They left everything to be consumed by the fire and protected only themselves. Some of our office staff who remained in the office immediately rushed to Sanischare camp. We from Goldhap camp reached Sanischare at 4:30 pm. By the time the fire was extinguished.
Yet, it was a heart breaking sight to see the cooking vessels, the water pots, the tin boxes, cycles, tailoring machines etc all in melted form. The fire had consumed whatever it could. In the midst of burnt smell the hut holders were digging the ashes to find out their lost valuables. We have opened out our schools as shelter to these people.
The scene after fire in Sanischare/Prakash AngdembeThe refugee community unaffected by fire decided together to cook the food by pulling their own rations and feed them at night. The fire victims of Sanischare may have shelter in the schools and food for the night but they would not be able to sleep as they have totally lost everything. During their twenty years of stay what little they acquired they have lost. They remain inconsolable. As the refugees had gone to Goldhap camp, they could not return to Sanischare to express the same solidarity and solace. The locals from their nearby Pathri town and surrounding villages came in big crowds and expressed their solidarity and sympathy.
The real relief operation at Sanischare would commence tomorrow morning. Sanischare is supposed to be one of the two permanent camps where the people of Khudunabari camps will be relocated from 2012 January. We don not know when these burnt down huts are going to be reconstructed and when the people will resume their normal life. Fortunately on Monday 21st we had shifted our 151 students of class ten to Beldangi camps for their board exam. We will provide them every facility over there so that they could write their exam without any tension or worry.
As we go to attend the meeting tomorrow request will be made to Caritas/JRS Nepal for relief. We have to accompany, assist and advocate the cause of these people at this hour of their need. We need financial support from donors and benefactors for the relief operation that Caritas/JRS Nepal wishes to carry out. Relief delayed is relief denied. Caritas/JRS Nepal wishes to begin the operation immediately. As we gather more details and data of the fire victims we will prepare a proposal and place before you for your support. We will also send you constant updates on the relief carried out for these fire victims.
(Amalraj is the Field Director of Caritas Nepal, Damak Field Office)