Darjeeling bishop: the Church’s work for Himalaya quake victims

» 09/21/2011 18:46

by Stephen Lepcha*
AsiaNews publishes the testimonial of Mgr Stephen Lepcha, bishop of Darjeeling, one of the areas hit by Sunday’s quake. For the prelate, that day “will never be forgotten”. Catholic associations and volunteers are trying to estimate the damages and help the population.

Darjeeling (AsiaNews) – Mamata Banerjee and Pawan Kumar Chamling, respectively chief ministers of West Bengal and Sikkim, said that their administrations would join forces to overcome the emergency caused by the 6.8 quake that hit both Indian states on Sunday along the Himalayan ridge that covers India, Nepal and Tibet. Early reports indicate almost 3,000 homes were destroyed and 53,000 damaged in the district of Darjeeling alone.

At least 15 people are feared dead in West Bengal, whilst 50 people are thought to have died in Sikkim. Meanwhile, rescue operations continue.

The quake also hit government building, places of worship and schools. AsiaNews spoke about it with Mgr Stephen Lepcha, bishop of Darjeeling. He describes the terror people experienced as well as the rescue operations and the work of Catholic associations and volunteers. For the prelate, 18 September “will never be forgotten”.

Here’s what Mgr Lepcha’s brief report:

The day of 18 September 2011 will never be forgotten. At 6.15 pm the earth started shaking violently with big sound of wind, for 41 to 42 seconds. Electricity failed. There was no lights for more than 12 hours. All phones were cut off, no network for another 12 hours. People came out from their houses on the roads and spent the whole night on playgrounds and empty places despite the rain. Hostel children were crying, afraid. They too spent the night outside the hostel because of fear. The next day all schools and colleges declared a holiday till today. And none is open yet. I must say it was miraculous that even after such a big earthquake, there were no larges-cale casualties.

Only two people died when their house collapsed and five were injured and taken to Hospital in Kurseong subdivision. Four people were killed in Kalimpong Subdivision, eight were injured and taken to hospital. Few reports about deaths caused by heart attack are coming in. Although not much death took place, cracks, big and small, have been appeared on practically all big buildings, belonging to schools, colleges, and government offices. In addition, in the hills already vulnerable land was further weakened. Big cracks have appeared on the land everywhere in the hills. Many roads are blocked due to landslides. All the hilly areas have become very weak. There could be more landslides now and buildings which are weak may fall at anytime. This is what people fear and are uncertain about at present.

Most of the churches (Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Darjeeling), temples and the Buddhist Monastery of the Darjeeling Hills did not fall. Few are fully damaged, others only partially. Schools like St Teresa’s High School, Loreto School, St Roberts School, St Joseph School, St Michael School, Notre Dame West Point School and Bethany, in Darjeeling are all affected with cracks.

I got a similar report from all the hills subdivision. According to the report, it looks like that 25 per cent of the homes of ordinary people is fully damaged and 60 per cent is partially damaged. Among the churches, priests’ residences and convents, I heard that St Joseph Convent and St Joseph School in Gitdubling are fully damaged.

Some of the government schools were badly hit by the earthquake. They cannot use them any more. On the long run, all these schools need to be rebuild. District magistrate, SDO, BDO and other government officials are actively involved in surveying the affected areas.

Different NGOs are also doing some surveys. The Chief Minister of West Bengal Ms Mamata Banerjee visited the Hill region and neighbouring Sate in Sikkim. She offered 200,000 rupees for the next to kin of victims and told the local government to do a proper survey and submit s report immediately. This report is about the three Subdivision, Darjeeling, and Kurseong and Kalimpong of the Darjeeling diocese.

The area most affected by the earthquake is Sate in Sikkim, which is also apart of the Darjeeling Diocese. District tourist hotspots such as Guru Dongmar Lake, Lachung, Lachen and Yumthang have been badly affected. In order to reach these places we need to go via Mangan Dt, which is 65 Km from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. This place has been identified as the epicentre of the earthquake. So far, the death toll in Sikkim stands at 39. There may be many more in the days to come. The above-mentioned places have been completely cut off from the rest of the world.

The military have been deployed to rescue victims and bring the food by helicopter. People are taking shelter in the army camps. An official report from Sikkim states that more than 100 school buildings, colleges and government offices have been completely destroyed. Even the Chief Minister’s Office has to be moved due to a crack on the walls of Sikkim Parliament office. Army camps and their bunkers have developed cracks. Whilst rescuing people, two soldiers have lost their life as well.

Sikkim Chief Minister Mr Pawan Chamling has announced a 500,000 rupee compensation for victims’ families, Rs. 50,000 for serious injuries and Rs 25,000 for minors ones.

Many people have lost their houses and property due to landslides. Fr Felix Baretto, Vicar General of the diocese, reported from St Thomas Church Gangtok that although mo Catholic private schools in Sikkim have not suffered much damage, they have been affected very badly due to cracks on the walls, post and the foundation itself. The Holy Cross Primary school in Tadong near Gangtok has been completely damaged. It needs to be replaced. Convents, priests’ residences and the church are all intact but partially cracked. Many Catholics have also lost property and land.

This is only a brief report I could make. Anugyalalya (Diocesan Social Service Society), our Caritas Diocesan unit, is colleting data from both Darjeeling and Sikkim. I have even asked the Sikkim Catholic Association, which is a lay organisation, to collect data for the Sikkim and DDCA (Darjeeling Diocese Catholic Association) from the three hill subdivision. I will try my best to give a full report on this dreadful earthquake of 18 September 2011.