Twelve-year-old Sharmila wakes up inside a big white tent set up next to a pile of rubble in Tupche village, some 80 kilometres from the capital Kathmandu. Like every other morning, Sharmila seeks help from her friend Ashmita to get ready for the day.
Ashmita carefully helps her make her bed, roll the mattress, fold her UNICEF-provided blanket* and pull her school uniform from the pile of clothes strung across a rope in the corner. Sharmila lost her vision when she was very young, and Ashmita is partially blind.
The two girls attend the Chandeswori Higher Secondary School, which has an integrated program for children with visual impairment. Along with ten other girls, they have been living in the tent for the past year, ever since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake destroyed their boarding house on 25 April 2015.
The school and the boarding tents are very close to the banks of the roaring Trisuli River. A suspended bridge links them to the road on the other side. Nearby, 10 boys are living under similar conditions.
A typical day at school
Ashmita takes Sharmila’s hand as they walk towards the tap and brush their teeth and clean up.
Breakfast is tea and biscuits in a temporary dining hall made of tin. Dented cups of steaming tea arrive at the table as the two sit and drink quietly.
“Our dishes got buried in the rubble and got all dented,” says Buddha Maya Bogati, the housemother who has been in charge of the boarding house for over 15 years.
Sharmila and Ashmita walk back to the tent together, take their braille boards out, and start writing.
“Last minute preparation for our test today,” Sharmila says with a smile.
Sharmila’s family is from the neighbouring Rasuwa district, but they sent her to the school nine years ago. Visually impaired children from five districts, some as far as from Dhading, a neighbouring district to the west, study in the school and live with Bogati in the house.
“All 22 children who are in the boarding house of the school come from very poor families,” says Bogati.
Many of them receive scholarships to study and live there.
The day everything changed
On the day of the earthquake, Bogati and three children, including Sharmila were inside the house. It was right after the spring holidays and only a few children had arrived to start school the following week.
“It started shaking, I ran outside and only then did I realize that three children were trapped inside the boarding house,” says Bogati.
“I grabbed a Bible that was in the room, and took cover under a piece of wooden plank and started to cry,” says Sharmila.
Bogati rushed in.
“It was dusty, I couldn’t see anything, I pulled as hard as I could,” she says.
Fortunately, she was able to rescue all three children.
“We were scared but we were not injured,” says Sharmila.
The earthquake completely destroyed Sharmila’s house in Rasuwa district too. She also lost her cousin and grandmother.
After the earthquake, the children didn’t even have spare clothes because they were all buried in the rubble.
“When parents came to take their children home after the earthquake, we had to send some of them barefoot because there was no way to even pull their slippers out,” Bogati says.
The days following the earthquake were not easy for the children. The school, some 100 meters from the boarding house, was in total ruins. With support from UNICEF, the school was able to clear the debris and build two temporary learning centres (TLC).
“Our infrastructure is totally destroyed, we lost our library, science laboratories and the boarding house that our blind students called home,” says Hari Prasad Rijal, principal of the school
One year later
Almost a year since the earthquake, the TLCs are showing signs of wear. There aren’t enough TLCs for everyone, so the school has set up desks and chairs outside so children can study.
“In the winter, the children don’t mind being outside in the sun, but it will be summer soon,” says Rijal.
Back at the boarding tent, Sharmila still sits with her braille board.
In the past, Sharmila used to love sitting in her room in the boarding house in the afternoons writing songs about her life, about the future and how she would find the courage to fight with the world even though she could not see.
After the earthquake, she struggles to be as creative when surrounded by so much instability.
“I miss my room in the boarding house,” she says. “I wonder when I will feel safe again.”
*As part of its winterization initiative, UNICEF distributed more than 14,000 blankets to children and women in 14 earthquake-affected districts to keep them warm during the cold winter months.