The child who taught me what it means to hope

Not many photos have changed my life, but there is one that changed me as a person, hopefully for the better.

April 25, 2015 is a day that I will never forget. It was the day I lived through my first earthquake in my then home in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was sleeping on what should have been a lazy Saturday, when my wife woke me up. The house was moving.

When it started to shake even harder, we decided to run. We lived on the sixth floor of a 12-storey building. We ran downstairs wearing only our pyjamas. On our way down, the walls in the stairwell chipped off, and from the windows, we could see huge waves pour out of the swimming pool.

I ran without being sure of what had happened, but when I reached the street and saw the fear on people’s faces, I realised it had been a huge earthquake. From that moment, the earthquake in Nepal became for me not just an event to photograph, but the story of a country I love.

For the first few days, we slept on the streets of Kathmandu along with the many who had lost their houses or were afraid of returning home as dozens of aftershocks continued to rock the country. Two Nepali colleagues, Niri Shrestha and Navesh Chitrakar, became family during those days. We walked together for hours through the damaged zones. The smell of death came from the debris. Every street that we passed was a scene of horror as neighbours and police dug through the rubble looking for life, working against the clock.

From the second day, I focused on Bhaktapur, a city just outside Kathmandu, where just a couple of weeks earlier I had photographed Bisket Jatra, a festival of joy. Its beauty was captivating. In the days after the earthquake, however, Bhaktapur resembled a war zone. The streets were covered in debris. Processions of bodies were taken to the hospitals to be identified by family members. Then the bodies were brought to the cremation site for families to pay their last tributes to their loved ones.

Sadness and frustration occupied my thoughts. I had to leave as my wedding was taking place in France on May 22 and there was no way I could delay it. From thousands of kilometres away in France, I could not stop following the news, speaking to my friends in Nepal. The international media started to forget about Nepal.

A month later, when I returned to Kathmandu, it was as if the earthquake had just struck. But something was changing. There was hope again, life was returning to normal and a message started to be heard around the country: “We will rise again.”

I felt that the people of Nepal were giving the world a lesson about life, but that no one was listening. I wanted to tell this story. Little by little, this became a project – and a personal journey – which I called Endurance.

I photographed Endurance for a total of seven months, although the project lasted four years. I have thousands of photographs, but there is one that makes my heart beat even today – it is of a young boy walking to school the day it reopened.

To go to school, this child had to cross a square in Bhaktapur where 27 people had died in buildings that fell in the earthquake. For me, this picture represents the strength of the Nepalese people, walking through the rubble of a disaster towards a future full of hope. And it captures what a father in that square once told me about his child’s role in rebuilding Nepal.

A square in Bhaktapur

The square in Bhaktapur became the centre of my project. I grew close to the people there and listened to their stories. Before the earthquake, it was a typical square where children played, and elderly people sat and chatted. But in the months after the earthquake, it was hard to find a square metre without rubble.

Residents tried to salvage what they could from the ruins of their homes. Day after day, I saw the same people working hard while their frustration grew due to the lack of help from the authorities. But there was no time to lose. Neighbours joined forces to demolish houses, risking their lives. Nepal needed to be rebuilt.

I have lost members of my family, my house. I have lost everything in the earthquake, but I have a child of nine years, and she is the future of Nepal. The reconstruction of this country is her education and as a father, I risk my life to recover the books and notebooks from the ruins of my house. This country won’t be rebuilt with brick. Nepal can only be rebuilt with education

A father in Nepal

One day, I was smoking a cigarette when I saw a man coming out of a tiny hole, no more than a metre in diameter, from the remains of his home. The ruins could collapse again, but he went in and out without stopping, taking out papers, notebooks and books. I saw him do this several times, before I ran to him to tell him he was crazy for doing this and that he could die if the rubble moved. But he smiled at me calmly and said: “Nepal has to be rebuilt, and everybody is focusing on the buildings, on the bricks. That’s a mistake. Nepal has many problems, and the earthquake is just one of them, but if we want to rebuild this country, we need education.

“I have lost members of my family, my house. I have lost everything in the earthquake, but I have a child of nine years, and she is the future of Nepal. The reconstruction of this country is her education and as a father I risk my life to recover the books and notebooks from the ruins of my house. This country won’t be rebuilt with brick. Nepal can only be rebuilt with education.”

Walking to school through rubble

On July 20, at least two schools in Bhaktapur reopened. Where before there had been mostly silence, the streets were now filled with the happy sound of children’s voices preparing for school.

I photographed children heading to school. Finally, there were happy photos to take. When I decided I had enough material, I was walking out of the square to have a coffee with my driver before heading back to Kathmandu when something stopped me.

There was a boy of about seven years of age, carrying his backpack and walking quietly on his way to school. He was alone in the square and something very fragile in the way he walked caught my attention. There was something special about his calm steps. In my eyes, he represented the happiness and hope felt by Nepalese as schools restarted. And he reminded me of the father’s powerful words about reconstructing through education. I wanted to show that Nepal was rising again, despite the huge obstacles in the way. I followed him for a few metres, taking photos.

Afterwards, I wanted to see his face, partly for reassurance that everything would be OK for us both. So I ran in front of him and smiled at him. I did not take a photo then, but I will never forget his beautiful smile.

I now keep a copy of this photo above my desk so that I do not forget that despite life’s problems to never lose hope. He showed me how to smile and to keep walking forward. I will always be grateful to him.

The hope that the Nepalese had, politicians stole; many have not received the help promised by the government. People with money today have better houses, but the poor lost everything. As that father taught me, hope for Nepal lies in education. I hope that children will be the ones to make the country a better place for everyone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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