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Local news, 11.05.2015

The earthquake in Nepal also caused substantial damage to the Swiss embassy in Kathmandu. In this interview, the Swiss ambassador in Nepal, Urs Herren, explains how he experienced the earthquake, how the embassy functioned during the crisis and what the earthquake means for Switzerland's long-standing commitment in Nepal.

Swiss ambassador to Nepal, Urs Herren, giving a telephone interview.
The Swiss ambassador to Nepal, Urs Herren (Kathmandu, 28.04.2015) © FDFA

Ambassador Urs Herren, where were you when the earth shook?
It was a Saturday, and we were having lunch at home. When an earthquake like this occurs, you feel as if the whole building is warping. The furniture began to move, the sofas slid two metres to the side. Luckily, my two daughters were attending a sporting event abroad at the time.

A second quake followed just a day later. How do you cope with a shock like that?
By the Sunday we were already in crisis and operational modes. I felt the second earthquake, but the work continued. This quake was also far weaker than the first.

The local employees have been particularly affected because they also have to look after their families. What, if anything, can you ask of them in such a situation?
I made it clear from the outset that their main priority should be to take care of their families. Nonetheless, on the Sunday more than half of our local employees came to the embassy to help out. In Kathmandu we have a team that has enjoyed a long relationship with the SDC, since our cooperation office here has been involved in development cooperation with Nepal for many years. And these employees distinguish themselves by their outstanding loyalty.

You already had to take emergency measures on the Saturday. What has to be done first, and what second?
I drove to the embassy right after the earthquake. Various colleagues, Swiss and Nepalese, went there immediately too. The security guards were already on site, and we started to open the emergency containers and take the first measures. An inspection of the building also revealed that it had suffered considerable damage.

What is an emergency container? Do all embassies have them?
No, not all. Of course, we know that Kathmandu is highly prone to earthquakes. That is why my predecessor created an appropriate infrastructure. I am very glad that our entire team had carried out an earthquake exercise as recently as this February, when we put up tents, checked the material, obtained documents to receive Swiss citizens, etc. Then on the very day of the earthquake the first five Swiss tourists arrived at the embassy. On the Sunday we set up the tents and the emergency kitchen, and were thus able to welcome more tourists in need of assistance.

How many stranded Swiss nationals finally came to the embassy premises?
We accommodated a total of 103 tourists, with an average of 40 to 45 people in the camp. Some only stayed for one night because they had already booked a flight for the following day. Others had yet to purchase a ticket, meaning they remained with us for varying periods of time. We were able to close the camp just over week after the disaster, as by then Kathmandu was "functioning" fairly well again. The hotels, guest houses and restaurants had reopened and flights had returned to normal on the Wednesday.

However, there were not only Swiss citizens here but also foreign tourists. Why?
The Bhagmati River divides Kathmandu into two. Only the Swiss and Norwegian embassies are located in the southern half of the city. On the basis of an agreement between the embassies, we also welcomed tourists from Germany and France, for example, whose representations are to the north of the city centre. The reverse would also be possible.

You not only had to look after the tourists on the embassy premises. There were also many enquiries about missing persons from their relatives in Switzerland. How did you handle this additional workload?
We received about 300 such enquiries in total. We already began to follow them up on the day after the earthquake. Contact was made quickly when we had a phone number for the Swiss citizens being sought. In other cases it took longer. Initially, we lost a few hours because we had to extract the equipment from the damaged building and set it up again.

You were also supported by the FDFA.
Yes, its Crisis Intervention Pool provided us with rapid assistance. Three consular staff from Switzerland and from the representation in Belgrade joined us. It was in part thanks to them that we were able to complete the search for tourists and Swiss citizens residing in Kathmandu.

And then you also had a rapid response team (RRT) from Swiss Humanitarian Aid in the garden...
We were very happy to welcome the RRT. It is designed to work more or less autonomously. Naturally, we assisted with contacts and information but the team was a help and by no means a hindrance.

Aside from the concerns, what was the general mood on the embassy premises?
There was definitely pressure on my local team. Many employees had suffered damage to their homes and that had to be examined, many had to sleep outdoors for the first few nights, also due to the aftershocks. After four days of what was an enormous deployment, we saw that their mood was more subdued. However, from the Wednesday following the disaster, we instituted a deployment rota, meaning that people were able to recuperate.

The Swiss tourists came and went. Did they tell you their stories?
I spoke with them and listened to what they had to say. Unfortunately, some had experienced really terrible things. I am lucky enough to have somebody on the team able to offer psychosocial support, but I am also pleased that many have written to us to say they felt well-looked after and in good hands at the embassy. I would also like to pass these thanks onto my team.

How long will it take before Nepal has recovered?
That's hard to say. The reconstruction around Kathmandu Valley, where the worst damage occurred on the mountains and hills, is bound to take a long time. We cannot yet say how that will impact on development and economic growth. We are still in the emergency aid phase, in which tents and tarpaulins are needed, and of course food aid. Nonetheless, during the weeks ahead, the question of the medium-term needs for reconstruction will arise.

Will the Cooperation Office now have to adapt its projects?
Without a doubt, there are projects that cannot be implemented in the same way following this event. We will also endeavour to provide support for the reconstruction from existing projects. That is why, for instance, when it comes to infrastructure projects for bridge and road construction we will be focusing on repairing damaged infrastructure. In the area of agriculture, it will probably be necessary to procure seed for the next season. We will be able to do that from the resources of the current programme. And as we are now facing an enormous demand for construction workers, we will be adapting our vocational training programme and offering additional courses for bricklayers, plumbers and sanitary specialists.

Last update 28.01.2022

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