Netflix offers a documentary about the 2015 Nepal earthquake, called Aftershock. The film centers on the stories of three groups of people trying to survive in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake: (a) the climbers trying to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, (b) local Nepalis, and (c) tourists; all of whom happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are their stories of survival and loss.
One of the most powerful stories follows three Israeli men who, having finished their mandatory military service, decided to meander through Nepal. They chose to end their vacation trekking through the Langtang valley.
They began in the village of Langtang, which sat at the entrance to the valley. While there, they participated in a Buddhist ceremony called ghawa. Ghawa is a ceremony performed 45 days after a loved one has passed. As part of that ceremony, the entire village and neighboring relatives gathered to dance and celebrate the decedent’s life. It was a communal gathering of joy and love. Eighteen hours later they would be dead, and their town demolished.
On April 25th, despite an uneasy feeling by their guide, the three men made a lifesaving choice to leave the Langtang and hike through the Langtang valley. After arriving in a small village called Kyanjin Ri, an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale struck.
The earthquake sent locals and tourists fleeing structures to open land. Most survived, a few were injured.
After the quake, there was a sense of uneasiness as tourists and villagers milled about tending to the injured, trying to decide what to do next. It must have been an uncomfortable feeling, knowing that there would be no help coming to this remote village. Eventually other tourists and three-person English speaking Nepalese telephone company employees joined the Israeli friends.
Fearing potential avalanches and displaced rocks from deadly aftershocks (sometimes registering 6 on the Richter scale), this newly formed group of 13 people decided to trek back to Langtang village. Just before Langtang, they noticed a gathering of injured and dazed standing by a hill. They peered over the hill to discover that Langtang village had disappeared. The path to leave Langtang had also evaporated.
Flattened by the earthquake, the entire village of Langtang and its inhabitants had been wiped off away, like rain by windshield wipers. The homes and communal spaces had become scattered rocks and lumber. The gathering of people consisted of the few survivors who had been away from the village at the time of the earthquake.
It is impossible to comprehend the devastation caused by this earthquake. The death toll would reach almost 9,000 people and leave an estimated 3.5 million people homeless.
As the crowd milled around in shock, the Israelis went into survival mode. They trekked to the demolished town in search of food, blankets, water to bring back.
On this mission, one of the Israelis discovered a locked silver box, opened it, and found identification papers, a few photos, and a large sum of money. He poured the contents into a plastic bag to bring it back to the hill to search for its owner.
Upon the Israelis’ return, the Langtang villagers became enraged that these tourists had disrespected their dead and looted their village. The villagers had lost everything, their family, their friends, their possessions, their valuables, their money, their home, their town.
When they encountered the Israelis carrying a plastic bag filled with money, they were furious, believing them to be looters who had violated their village and their dead.
As the squabble became more aggressive, a scuffle ensued, and one Nepali grabbed the bag. Reviewing the contents, he recognized the owner. It was his neighbor. In the videos you can see his smoldering contempt in the glint in his eyes and the tightness in his jaw; the weight of the loss resting on his slumped shoulders.
Sides had been chosen and a fight ensued, fueled by fear, uncertainty, grief, frustration, despair, and anger. Miraculously, in this moment, a few Nepali soldiers arrived and quelled the disturbance. But cabals had formed, and the Israelis were now pariahs. Even the Nepali members of their group were appalled that they had disrespected the survivors and village.
Fearing retribution, the Israelis insisted that the Nepal army protect them. Instead, a helicopter arrived and whisked only the soldiers away.
An uneasy peace formed; with Israelis believing (incorrectly) that villagers would never allow them to be rescued.
In the meantime, the villagers were devastated, they had no means of communication with the outside world. They were stranded, amidst the wounded and the devastation, unable to get help or let their loved ones know that they were still alive.
But the three Israelis did have a means of communication which they did not share. The Israelis contacted a rescue organization to extract them. Fearing the animosity of the villagers, they also requested immediate evacuation and weapons.
The Israeli rescue leader was perplexed by a request for weapons on a rescue mission. He realized that to make the situation safe, he needed the most powerful weapon that he had.
When he arrived at the location, he stepped out of the helicopter, and announced to the survivors. “I am here to help EVERYONE.” The weapon he used: hope.
In that moment the tensions evaporated, the rescue leader called for more helicopters, first aid supplies, food, and blankets for everyone. He reached out to the angriest villager and told him that he would help him first.
There is a fabled Cherokee story about a grandfather explaining to his grandson that there are two wolves inside us. Each wolf is fighting for control. One wolf harbors our worst emotions, anger, fear, greed, hatred, selfishness. The other wolf harbors our best emotions, love, generosity, kindness, caring. The grandson asked, “which wolf wins?” The grandfather explained, “the one you feed.”
Sitting in our cozy homes, it is easy to pronounce judgement. Although it may have been a poor choice to open the box, it wasn’t a malevolent one. And when tensions rose, a cabal formed, each believing the other evil. In their stress and panic, they each fed the wrong wolf.
But the rescuer chose that second wolf. He chose generosity, he chose kindness.
And that wolf is always stronger.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.