From one emergency to another
The volunteer group RNA16 shot into the limelight in May 2020 after it handled the first coronavirus death in Nepal at a time when there was extreme stigma about the disease.
Eight months on, they continue to conduct rescue missions for other crises besides Covid-19, and the team has grown from four to ten.
"We have handled close to 26 Covid bodies," says Arun Sainju, who leads the team that worked closely with the Nepal Army in handling the coronavirus casulties.
Sainju and his team were awarded a national medal by President Bidya Devi Bhandari in September 2020. They also received the Gallantry Award First-class from Nepal Scouts in October.
RNA16 is a short form for ‘Rescue And Awareness in 16 Types of Disasters’, and speaks for the work it does. Currently, the team helps people with PCR tests, ambulance service in response vehicles, fumigation of affected areas, and training on Covid-19 safety to health institutions, hospitals, and community health groups.
During last year’s monsoon, the team also was called to respond to landslides in Sindhupalchok where it conducted rescues.
"The last two months were quite busy with training sessions," says Sainju, who has just returned from Solu Khumbu after training 134 staff in dealing with Covid emergency response.
Not all heroes wear capes but the team in-charge of RNA16 Arun Sainju easily stands out in a crowd. Clad in a fluorescent green rescue jacket, a walkie-talkie slung to his waist, he sports a ‘RNA16’ tattoo on his neck. The 31-year-old recognised his calling in life after an incident involving the drowning of an 11-year-old girl.
During the 2015 earthquakes, he was hospitalised with injuries himself, and was constantly in the presence of people in pain in beds next to him. He asked if he could be of any help, and was soon assisting his medic friends in providing relief to others injured in the earthquakes.
Since then, he has not looked back. Sainju has gone on from one emergency to another, providing his support to survivors and rescuing people during landslides, floods— even the crash of the US Bangla flight at Kathmandu airport in 2018.
"Everything looks normal now despite the pandemic, people have started to go about their daily lives. We are probably learning to adapt to the virus situation. But there will always be emergencies for which we need to prepare," says Sainju.
Team leader Arun Sainju noticed Gainju during a fire rescue drill, and immediately decided to ask him to join RNA16. Since then, they have been working together as emergency responders. Together, they became the ones to volunteer in managing the first Covid dead body in Nepal.
Gainju, 30, has been a Scout for more than half his life. With skills in rope rescue, he has had an adventurous life, plucking people trapped on mountains and in rivers. His temerity was first tested during the Nepal earthquakes of 2015. While his own house was damaged, he was busy pulling out other people from under the debris of fallen buildings in Bhaktapur. After the earthquake, he traveled to different districts as a volunteer to rebuild public schools.
During the pandemic lockdown, he spent his days feeding an old couple in an isolation ward. When they recovered, he also helped them return home. “They wept in gratitude. Life has no purpose if one cannot use it to help people in need,” he says.
Nhuza Kiju works as a computer operator in Bhaktapur Municipality. A Scout from a young age, he was active in local youth clubs. After the April 2015 earthquakes, he helped build temporary shelters.
He met Arun Sainju at a scouting camp in Kakani, and currently manages information for the team, which includes handling not just social media but emergency calls as well.
Since the pandemic started, he has also been helping the team in contact tracing Covid cases and assisting in preparing funerals for coronavirus victims.
"It was very hard to see the grief of patients' families not being able to see their loved ones," says the 21-year-old, who is working to join the Nepal Police in the future.
Poonam Karmacharya was the first female volunteer in RNA16. A staff nurse by profession, she joined the team four years ago, conducts self-defense training and is also involved in rescue, safety, and awareness programs.
Besides her nursing skills, 23-year-old Karmacharya helps manage team communication. The bulk of her work comprises collecting details of Covid-19 patients and guiding them through recovery procedures in hospitals.
Karmacharya wants to conduct awareness programs related to women's health and hygiene in rural Nepal in future. She adds: "The hardest part of living in a tent for more than three months as a volunteer was not having proper toilet facilities, which made me realise how women’s needs during crisis can be different."