Nepal in lockdown: The peacekeeper and the street children

Poor mountainous Nepal has experienced two disasters in five years. In 2015 the country was hit by three gigantic earthquakes. Now the country is currently under lockdown due to the COVID-19-pandemic. In 2015 Vibeke Andrea Sefland was in the middle of climbing the Himalayas when the first earthquake broke out. Now the former UN peacekeeper runs an orphanage for street boys in Kathmandu.

In Nepal you will find eight of the ten highest mountain peaks in the world. Vibeke Andrea Sefland, a captain in the Norwegian armed forces and one of the most experienced female mountain climbers in the world, had in 2015 just finished a one-year long mission for the UN as a military observer at the Golan Heights. She decided to take leave of absence from the armed forces to realize a dream she has had for a long time: to climb the highest mountain in the world – Mount Everest.

Trekking up Everest | © Vibeke Andrea Sefland

On April 25, 2015, she and the rest of her crew were on a glacier 20,000 feet above sea level, in a gulf between the three mountains Mount Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, when everything around them began to shake.

“First I can hear an avalanche coming from Everest. Then I hear what I think is an echo from Nuptse, but it’s not an echo. There’s an avalanche coming from there as well, and both are heading towards me,” says Vibeke in an interview with UNRIC.

What she doesn’t know, is that an earthquake has caused the avalanches. Her crew was lucky. They were all swept away by the avalance coming down Mount Everest, but the layer of snow covering them was so thin that they could easily brush it off. Others weren’t so lucky. Twenty-two people on and around Mount Everest died that day, and over a 100 were hurt by the avalanches.

High up in the mountains, Vibeke and the rest of her crew knew nothing of how hard Nepal’s cities and villages had been hit by the earthquakes. Nearly 9,000 people died and 22,300 were injured. Entire villages were completely ruined. Three million people lost their homes and 700,000 fell below the poverty line.

“We lived in our own little bubble. We had no idea what had happened,” recounts Vibeke.

On a mission for the World Food Programme

WFP peacekeeping supplies, Nepal | © Vibeke Andrea Sefland

Vibeke decided to stay in Nepal to help with the country’s reconstruction. As a captain for the Norwegian armed forces and as a UN peacekeeper she had been on missions all over the world: South Sudan, Lebanon, Chad, Kosovo, Iraq and Syria. She has traveled in more than 80 countries and now she could make use of her expertise and experience to help Nepal and its citizens back on its feet.

The earthquakes that occurred on 25 and 26 April and 12 May destroyed the infrastructure of already difficult to reach areas in Nepal. On behalf of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Vibeke reopened a collapsed mountain pass called Larke which lies next to the Manaslu mountain in Madre, the earthquakes epicenter.

“They needed someone who could open a mountain pass at 16,700 feet above sea level. I had to transport 62,000 tonnes of food to the other side of the mountain. I hired 200 mules and 20 mule drivers!” Vibeke recounts eagerly.

In the Helambu region, she set up an emergency center which supplied both food and medical care, and she helped WFP identify the Nepali citizens’ need for assistance. In Helambu she met the farmer’s son and nature lover, Lucky, who had been working for the World Wide Fund for Nature and he became her loyal friend, guide and assistant.

Lucky and the street boys

Vibeke ended up staying in Nepal for a year and a half. She built schools, provided medical assistance and distributed supplies. The aftershocks of the earthquakes were so severe and frequent that she lived in tents on rice fields to be safe from toppling buildings.

As things slowly began to stabilize for the inhabitants of the mountainous country, Vibeke discovered others who needed help: the street children in Kathmandu.

There are an estimated 5,000 street children in Nepal, the majority are boys who escape from poverty and violence at home. On the street, they often become victims of physical violence and sexual abuse, and many end up resorting to drugs such as the glue brand Dendrite.

In 2016, in collaboration with Lucky and the Swedish organization WeCare, which also finances a home for street girls, Vibeke became manager of a home for eight former street boys. The boys are aged between 4-16 years old and have parents but cannot reunite with them.

Nepal in COVID-19 lockdown

Vibeke Andrea Sefland with mule during trek © Vibeke Andrea Sefland

On March 23, 2020, Lucky sent this message to Vibeke:

“Today one person coming from France to Nepal infected with corona.”

The next day, the Nepali government introduced a countrywide shutdown which has been extended to June 14. The borders to China and India are closed, and all international flights are canceled. Schools, shops, gyms and cinemas have all had to close their doors. Currently, Nepal has 2,300 recorded cases of infection and nine people have died from the coronavirus.

It is believed that Nepal’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, will be severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A quarter of the country’s population lives below the national poverty line, and many are still living in the temporary shelters aid workers like Vibeke helped build five years ago.

Under such living conditions, it is difficult to follow the authorities’ COVID-19 regulations.

For more than two months, Vibeke’s boys have not set foot outside the orphanage compound. Unlike many other children, they were fortunate enough to complete their exams just before the school had to close its doors, but their situation nevertheless exemplifies how difficult it is for children to follow keep learning when schools are closed.

Vibeke’s boys can only access the internet through a mobile phone and have no textbooks of their own. Digital learning is not an option for children like them.

Currently, Vibeke works as an instructor for the Norwegian Armed Forces. The pandemic makes it impossible for her to visit the boys at the orphanage. Instead, she talks to them on FaceTime almost every day.

“I miss my boys,” Vibeke smiles and shows videos on her smartphone of the boys dancing and singing. On her phone are also pictures of the space the eight former street children spend all their time during the pandemic: a backyard, a living room, a bedroom and a roof terrace.


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