Nepal quake survivors were killed in a bus crash

Passengers ride inside and atop overcrowded buses as they head toward their village to celebrate a Hindu festival in Nepal in October 2015.

Prakash Karki and his 20-year-old son Raj waited over a year for the cash Nepal's government promised them to rebuild their home from the 2015 earthquakes. On Monday, they heard good news: The government said they'd finally receive $500 to start the foundation of their house.

But their tragedy wasn’t finished: Instead of a homecoming on Monday, they woke up in a hospital.

Monday morning, they left Kathmandu, where they were sheltering, piled onto a bus with other earthquake survivors and headed home to Kavre, a hill district east of the capital. As the bus neared their village, passengers continued to board. Soon, nearly 90 crammed onto the bus designed for 35 passengers. The men climbed to the roof to make way for children, women and the elderly. People sat in the aisles on bags of rice and sugar.

But as the bus chugged up a muddy hill, the engine stalled. It slid backward off a cliff, tumbling almost 300 feet. Raj and his father escaped by jumping from the roof, but 27 of those trapped inside were killed. The father and son were both injured and airlifted to a hospital in Kathmandu. 

On Tuesday, Prakash lay in a bed at the National Trauma Center with a broken neck and other injuries, while the son Raj watched after the family, his right arm wrapped in a cast. They both wondered when life would finally return to normal. “We want to build our home, but how can we now?” Raj asked.

The government announced this week it will dole out promised money to nearly 300,000 families whose homes were destroyed in the 2015 earthquakes. The Nepali government has been widely criticized for the delays in rebuilding that have forced hundreds of thousands to seek temporary shelter. But the announcement was long-awaited good news, prompting many to rush home to claim the first installment of a $2,000 grant in total.

For poor people in Nepal’s mountainous districts, the only available transportation are the colorful, old buses that ply the narrow dirt roads. Every day, four or five buses from each region travel to or from Kathmandu. For the villagers, they provide an essential link to jobs, medical treatment and family.

They are also deathtraps. Nepal’s rural roads are littered with the carcasses of buses and trucks that careened down steep hills. Every day, an average of five people die in road accidents here, according to numbers recently released by the traffic police.

During times of high demand like festivals, or big occasions like this week, everyone returns home and the buses are packed.

It’s illegal to overcrowd or put passengers on the roof. But before every police checkpoint, the bus stops, everyone on top climbs off, walks past the police, and then climbs back onto the roof as soon as the police checkpoint is out of sight.

The government has tried to regulate the privately run transportation industry, banning vehicles older than 20 years this year. But these laws go unheeded by the powerful transport unions, said Madan Maleku of the Nepal Transportation and Development Research Center.

For the poor residents of these areas, there isn’t any choice but to get on and pray for a subha yatra — a safe journey.

Stephen Groves reported from Kathmandu, Nepal.

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