Q&A: Adrian Baschuk, Reporting on Nepal’s Earthquake from Above
Adrian was born in Mexico to a Russian/Mexican father and an American mom, and was raised in Miami Beach. He works in news and documentary, covering international stories. He’s worked for ABC in Miami, as well as CNN and Current, among others. After producing some cable and network shows, his goal is to blend aspects of documentary work into news coverage.
Storyhunter: What was it like reporting in Nepal right after the earthquake?
Adrian Baschuk: The scope of the earthquake was immense. You could never feel like you were covering the whole story because every person in Nepal had a very personal story to tell in how they were affected by the earthquake; every neighborhood in Kathmandu had a story; and every village the further you went outside the city had more and more stories to tell. Plus, aftershocks continued so the story got even bigger. In that time, it was most difficult to witness the very hard reality that hundreds of thousands of people were simply trying to survive and fulfill the basic needs of food, water, and shelter. It’s sobering but you walk away with a kind of enlightened perspective of what matters.
This was my third time to Nepal. The first time in 2005 I spent 5 weeks with Jaron Gilinsky (co-founder or Storyhunter and longtime friend from our days both growing up in Miami). We did news and documentary work together and were covering the Maoist rebels. We took every form of transport imaginable and embarked on a grueling 5-day trek to get to the rebel group’s capital, Tawang, in northwestern Nepal. We were only the third camera crew to make the journey. My second time was in 2010 where I directed a documentary about a US medical mission. This time, however, Nepal was much different unfortunately.
SH: Most of your story was shot from a chopper that flies over remote villages affected by the earthquake in Nepal. How did you manage to secure a spot on the chopper?
AB: From day one, all the journalists and networks in Nepal were trying to get access to helicopters going up to the villages outside of Kathmandu. However, space was limited and mostly reserved for emergency aid workers, of course. As a freelancer, I put in requests wherever I could: Medecins Sans Frontieres, UNICEF, a few other smaller NGOs, even private Nepalese flight companies. I finally tracked down the Indian Department of Defense contact out of Delhi and he put me in touch with their man on the ground in Nepal overseeing media access, Capt. Pande, and he coordinated the flight. However, on the day of the flight, as so often happens in Nepal, weather conditions worsened. The US Osprey had crashed a few days before, so the Nepal Air Force command was being very cautious in sending flights out.
After a 4 hour wait on the tarmac we flew up with two pilots — the very best of the Indian Army, specifically sent to Nepal to fly the aid missions given the navigation through mountainous terrain was so difficult. In some areas, there was only a 50 yard clearance between cliffs. The pilots even looked the part of Top Gun recruits, sporting their aviators, jumpsuits, and general bravado. They were incredibly media savvy and offered up running commentary of the flight path throughout the mission. They even shared dozens of photos with me of their improbable landings and keep in touch to this day following the piece.
Ten minutes into the flight, clouds started descending into the valleys and between the hillsides. We were flying only dozens of feet away from the sides of mountains and landing was even more difficult. My stepfather flew Marine One and he and my mom were none too pleased to see the flying conditions afterwards.
SH: What was it like when you landed in that remote village?
AB: What fails to come across in the piece is that the villages we visited still had not been reached by aid efforts two weeks moving on from the first earthquake. So, we flew back three injured people who would finally get proper medical attention in Kathmandu. It was incredible to witness.
It felt very distant, and almost alien to fly in and out like that. Again, there was a paradox of everyone being on their phones taking pictures and video, and me with a camera taking pictures of them, and yet, we were promptly heading back to civilization. Even if they wanted to leave the village, the landslides cutting up the paths were impossible to pass through. I could only sympathize with what they’ve had to deal with as we flew away.
There are over 10,000 remote villages dotting the mountains across Nepal. When the first earthquake hit northwest of Kathmandu, the authorities had to carve out an aid plan that divided the sectors first by the hardest hit areas, then established central dispersement centers, like Ramechapp that we visited, where smaller villages, like Pritee that we went to, would make such centers their point of pick up for aid relief, food, and supplies. However, with aftershocks and then the second big earthquake that hit, the footpaths and small roads winding throughout the mountains were broken up during landslides. So, far flung villages had no way of getting to these bigger relief points where helicopters could more easily fly into. Nepal Army soldiers were having to hike up to these smaller villages, identify victims and those who needed medical attention, request aid and helicopter reach, and then even build out landing sites. The day I flew up with the Indian Army was one such case where we first reached a central valley medium point, dropped off supplies, then flew further up into the mountains, amid lowering clouds in the area where the US Osprey Marine helicopter went down, and reached a village that was visited for the first time.
SH: How did the villagers react when they saw you approaching?
The entire village of Pritee turned out for the helicopter flight coming in. Soldiers guarded the landing site upon approach. Sadly, in the first days following the major quake there were incidents in other villages where desperate victims either rushed aid delivery trucks and created mob scenes, and far worse, rushed landing helicopters and were killed by the spinning back rotors. What was interesting is that three quarters of the villagers were taking pictures or videos on their phones. While they’re so far removed from western society and modern Kathmandu, they’re still in the age of mobile technology. The three people needing medical attention were the only ones allowed to board, we swiftly picked them up, and took off within 3 minutes to get back to Kathmandu as quickly as possible, mainly to beat the incoming clouds which would have made it virtually impossible to navigate through the narrow mountain passes.
SH: What are your thoughts on the media coverage of Nepal — especially outside of Kathmandu?
AB: Immediately what comes to mind is the drop off in coverage. The international media rushed in to get the disaster footage, myself being one of them. However, there’s an immense rebuilding effort that is slowly getting underway and Nepal, given it’s one of the world’s poorest country, can only adequately sustain itself with the help of international aid. Sure, money and relief supplies poured in, but what is happening now, 6 weeks on, where families have to clear an entire house of rubble with their bare hands and figure out how to move on thereafter. I hope the media organizations that have the resources to continue to cover Nepal will examine and shed light on the very daunting rebuilding process.