Girls as young as three are being sold by their families into the sex trade for less than £400 after Nepal’s ‘forgotten’ earthquake a year ago this Monday.
The number of children and young people at risk of abuse and slavery is surging amid chaos and desperation caused by the 7.8-magnitude disaster that killed almost 9,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
As many as 20,000 children are feared to have been trafficked since the quake last April 25, dismayed campaigners have told Metro - and they accuse senior politicians and police of being in league with child-abusers and people-smugglers.
Girls and young women are proving especially and increasingly vulnerable, with some reports even of sons selling off their own mothers.
An estimated 7,000 girls are thought to have been sold or lured ino the sex industry in Thamel, a main tourist hub in the capital Kathmandu.
With so many families forced out of homes smashed to fragments, traffickers have found it even easier than previously to prey upon helpless and disoriented villages and towns - many in remote and inaccessible terrain.
Some culprits are even infiltrating communities in the guise of eagerly, desperately-welcomed aid and relief workers.
Prices for a child range from 60,000 to 200,000 rupees, £396 to £1,320, according to anti-trafficking charity CarNetNepal’s executive director Dhan Raj Ghimire.
He told Metro: ‘People are so desperate for any help, often they don’t recognise who are the real relief workers and who are traffickers merely pretending to help and befriend them.
‘They have nothing in their world - everything has been lost.’
A Unicef report two months after last April’s earthquake suggested about 200 children were still missing, feared trafficked.
But activists now believe hundreds, even thousands more have been swept up by cynical people-smugglers capitalising on post-disaster inertia from authorities and helplessness among casualties and survivors.
When children are not directly recruited from their families, they are now even more vulnerable to being abducted while walking miles for water - vital local sources having been damaged or destroyed by the quake.
‘In those vast distances children are having to travel, maybe in woodland or remote lanes, many have either been kidnapped or raped or sexually abused on their way,’ Mr Ghimire said.
‘Many of the girls who are sold are then put in brothels or massage parlours, especially in Kathmandu and especially in the tourist areas. They’re then trapped.
‘And these are children sold by their own relatives. We’ve seen some who have been beaten, raped, even burnt.
‘Once they’re sold and they’re there, trapped, they don’t have any hope left - spirit is lost, spirit is dead.
‘In fact, they don’t want to come out - that’s all they now know.’
Boys, meanwhile, are more likely to find themselves forced into servitude doing washing up or cooking in hotels and restaurants.
One was 13-year-old Sete Syangtan, who told Metro how he was persuaded by a friend to leave their homes in the village of Dobhandanda and travel to Kathmandu in the hope of furthering their education.
But he was soon abandoned, and forced to take dish-washing work at a restaurant in the bristling, smog-ridden, chaotic city.
‘My friend misguided me,’ Sete said, struggling to brush back tears.
‘He said I’d get a better education there while also earning money working - he promised I could do both, but he was lying.’
Instead his time away from school was spent washing dishes in a restaurant for no pay, lodging with the brutish owner who would beat him while rebuffing any attempted contact from his family.
Sete said: ‘My parents had agreed I could go but when they tried to visit me, the owner lied to them that I was out playing - he wouldn’t let them see me at all.’
Mr Ghimire says his organisation - which has provided awareness training to almost 500 Nepalese churches - has nevertheless rescued more than 300 children from traffickers and abusers.
Raids have been carried out on sites of concern such as sari-embroidering factories, where child workers are especially prized for their smaller and nimble fingers.
Yet the earthquake and its ongoing aftermath have only exacerbated the country’s existing child exploitation plague.
Two of the worst-affected regions are Nuwakot and Sindhupalchowk in central Nepal - where intrinsic poverty and rural isolation combine with tensions and vulnerability among different ethnic groups, including Mongolian communities.
And efforts to tackle traffickers are undermined by a culture of bribes which fuels accusations politicians and senior police officers are happy to turn a blind eye to such crime.
Mr Ghimire said: ‘On the rare occasions a trafficker is caught, there will often be huge pressure to release him.’
Meanwhile, Mr Ghimire’s team are attuned to an old Nepalese saying: ‘If a father is educated, only he is educated. If a mother is educated, the whole family is educated.’
The country’s overbearingly patriarchal domestic culture can mean not only are girls and young women especially susceptible to abuse, but also wives and mothers.
Mr Ghimire has seen cases of sons selling their own mothers to traffickers, knowing they will face little suffering themselves.
And he aded: ‘There are a lot of abusive fathers, who make sure their children aren’t going to school and getting on.
‘Those children who drop out of school are then more vulnerable to being trafficked - especially if their parents are elsewhere a lot of the time, working in the fields all day.’
Nepal has wasted much of the year since the massive earthquake, casualties and campaigners say - and the man put in charge of recovery almost agrees.
National Reconstruction Authority chief Sushil Gyewali told Metro, in a rare interview, that ministers had acted too slowly before finally beginning attempts to rebuild homes and crucial infrastructure.
He took over just four months ago, following wrangles within Nepal’s then-interim government over who should lead the newly-formed National Reconstruction Authority.
Officials have only just begun handing out £1,300 grants to some of those recorded as severely-affected.
Sporadic aftershocks have hit since last April, in an already-impoverished nation across which tin shelters now pockmark the landscape alongside formerly two-storey homes now reduced to rubble.
Recovery efforts have also been held back by four-month India border blockages organised by oposition Madhesi tribes in protest at changes to the country’s constitution.
These embargos, which only ended in February, led to serious shortages of fuel and vaccines.
Lengthy wrangling over the new constitution - which came into force last September - also delayed the launch of the NRA and agreement over who should then lead it.
Ministers insist they will help 700,000 households, between 3.5million and 4million people - but progress feels lethally slow to victims suffering and charities supporting - despite defiance from NRA CEO Mr Gyewali about promised progress ahead.
‘We just need the government now to get their act together,’ remarked British volunteer Finlay Hodge, who has been working in Nepal on and off for the past 38 years.
‘It’s ridiculous, really - they’ve pretty much wasted a year.’
‘But we needed it much sooner.
‘If they don’t help, more people are left in danger - they get impatient and build new homes without the proper protections, which aren’t safe if another earthquake comes and could collapse again.’
Mr Gyewali told Metro: ‘There should have been an NRA in place beforehand - but that was delayed.
‘Not having the framework in place earlier means the reconstruction hasn’t happened properly as expected.
‘But we have been able to expedite the process within the last three months.’
But Maniram Gelal, deputy director-general at the urban development and building construction, admitted: ‘Due to a lack of resources, rebuilding may extend beyond the period we were targeting.’
Some 80 per cent of ‘impact assessment surveys’ had now been carried out, more than 1,800 engineers have been allocated and ‘dispursement grants’ have finally begun going to those deemed needing help.
But Nepal is only now starting official government-led training programmes for what they insist will produce an army of 2,700 newly-enhanced builders and masons.
Mr Gyewali insisted: ‘If you compare the rate of progress in other parts of the world, the work done in these past three-and-a-half months has been successful.
‘We now have a basis to go ahead with the reconstruction.’
Britain has pledged £170million and the UK public have raised £85million.
An elderly widow will on Tuesday move into the first new home officially built by charity volunteers following last year’s Nepal earthquake - but tens of thousands more must go on waiting.
Thulimaya Syangtan, who lives alone and lost her home in last April’s disaster, was picked by British-based charity Tearfund for the prize.
The 77-year-old’s husband three children are all dead - each baby dying under the age of two - leaving neighbours and campaigners aware she was unable to rebuild her own property.
Tearfund stepped in to begin building the first of their so-called ‘model homes’, comstructed according to earthquake-resilient principles and put together by newly-retrained masons.
Mrs Syangtan remains in fear of a repeat calamity, however - and suspects she would be less fortunate next time.
Despite her age, she was working in nearby fields at the time of the quake, collecting maize.
She recalled: ‘I felt the tremors and hurried home as soon as I could. By the time I got there, my house had gone and others were dismantling too.
‘I just couldn’t stop crying.’
Many victims forced from their homes have been given sheets of tin to form makeshift shelters while awaiting more permanent replacement homes.
But comfort has been scant, especially in recent months with temperatures plunging as low as -10C, especially bleak for those living in hill- and mountain-based communities.
And Mrs Syangtan spent the first three months following the earthquake under a thinner tarpaulin, before being found a cramped tin cocoon just yards from where her new property will stand.
She said: ‘I don’t see this as a home - it’s more of a store, or at best a tunnel.
‘The winter’s been so misty, so cold - I was desperate just to escape from this place somehow.’
Neighbours did help put together the structure and hand over what food they could, however, and she insisted: ‘It’s so nice having help from other people - I cherish their support.’
Yet anxieties still linger.
She said: ‘Because the aftershocks keep happening, we still feel frightened - I still expect another.
‘And if another earthquake comes, and the house fall down again, no one will come to help me because they’ve already done it once.’
While reluctant to smile for photos in her new home - ‘Only young people can laugh, I’m too old to smile’ - she remained pragmatic, however, when continuing to muse over her future prospects.
Despite her concerns about more earthquakes ahead, she finally declared: ‘I’ve been through so much hardship already - lacking food, lacking clothes, lacking a home.
‘I’m sure now I’ll manage somehow.’
Campaigners and survivors accuse the government of delaying too long before crucial rebuilding - despite the world pledging £2.83million in donations, handing over only £880million so far.
Sudarshan Shreshthra, from Save The Children’s Nepal office, said: ‘We’re ready to start building 6,000 new homes but we’re still waiting for the government to give the green light. The political establishment and bureaucracy has been too slow to respond.
‘Now we have the monsoon season looming, for the new two months, which is going to make it even more difficult to get people into safe new homes after all this time.’
Nepal insists it is retraining a new army of 2,700 masons to rebuild a shattered nation - but many of them face a long wait to replace their own homes that collapsed to the ground.
But his own family remain under a makeshift tin shelter an hour’s walk away, after he - like thousands of colleagues - remained until recently ignorant of newly-emphasised anti-earthquake precautions.
Queues have been forming outside the Kathamandu offices of the government’s Department of Urban Development and Business Construction - desperate either for retraining or apprenticeships in house-building.
Yet officials admit their hopes of meeting targets are undermined by the low wages on offer - and the lure of higher-paying Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The average pay for a Nepalese-based builder is £165 (25,000 rupees) per month - far from enough, say not only rueful workers but also senior civil servants vainly wishing they could hand over more.
‘They get offered more in other countries. It would be better if the government could do more to attract them back.’
Mr Gelal conceded the government was only now enforcing strict new earthquake-proof building guidelines - meant to protect homes against future disasters - across the country’s 219 local authorities.
People in need are being offered a choice of 17 different house designs - though can suggest their own.
Masons and builders are now being put through seven-day training courses in earthquake-resilient techniques - whether run by government agencies or by charities such as British-based Tearfund.
Mr Gurung has been among those hard at work on 77-year-old Thuliamaya Syangtan’s new home, 1800m above sea level in the Makwanpur village of Basanta.
He said: ‘The new techniques are trickier than usual - they take more time.’
Mr Gurung, a builder for 15 years, said: ‘My house totally collapsed, like the ones around it.
‘Luckily there was no one inside at the time - I was working in the fields and my children were away, although all nine of our cattle were killed.
‘My kids are still so frightened and life feels very difficult. The coming months are going to be very challenging.’
He is paid 900 rupees per day - that is, £5.95.
Mr Gurung added: ‘The grant from the government is not enough to build a new home. People with lots of money can do it on their own but that’s not the case for most of us.
‘I only earn just enough for food. We can’t save any money for reconstruction.’
National Reconstruction Authority chief executive Sushil Gyewali admitted: ‘Before there was not that level of understanding about how to make buildings safe.
‘It took the earthquake to change that.’
Ram Bahadur Thing fainted on feeling the first tremors of Nepal’s devastating earthquake exactly a year ago this week.
His 13-year-old daughter managed to survive under shelter with neighbours, but his mother was nowhere near so fortunate - unable to escape and crushed under the rubble of their collapsing family home.
Mailimaya Thing was one of almost 9,000 people killed that day, buried under wreckage in the lofty foothills of remotely-inaccessible mountain ranges outside the capital Kathmandu.
Mr Thing - unable to work more than a few hours a day after being disabled by a snakebite to the foot - had to depend on neighbours’ help not only to recover his mother’s body but to pay for her funeral.
But he does at least count his blessings, when considering how his daughter survived - even while worrying for her future, having allowed her old sister to take her across the border to India for further education or else domestic labour.
Mr Thing reflected at his home in Makwanpur village Domankharka, however: ‘Life’s been pretty difficult - I’ve been very depressed.’
Friends and neighbours say he has been even lower than he lets on, prompting serious fears for his wellbeing and state of mind.
He was at a nearby marketplace when the earthquake happened, instantly feeling so disoriented by the upheaval he pasesed out.
‘When I came to, people were rushing up to me saying, “Your mother’s died, your house has collapsed”,’ he said.
He hurried uphill home to find the home in ruins - and his 75-year-old mother Mailimaya Thing buried beneath the rubble.
He recalled: ‘I realised right away my mother was no more.
‘Somehow a group of us managed to dig into the rubble and bring her out, but sadly there was nothing we could do for her. It was devastating.’
His wife Thulimaya had died following a toxic edema 15 years earlier, leaving him to bring up their children - daughters Sukumaya, now 23, and 13-year-old Sanchumaya, and son Atmaram, 16.
Sukumaya has been working as a maid in India, while Atmaram was at school and Sukumaya with neighbours at the time of the tremors - both of them able to survive unscathed.
He said: ‘If my daughter had been home at the time, I believe I’d have lost her too. That would have been too much.’
The eldest daughter travelled home within days to support her father but also convincing him to let Sanchumaya travel with her back to India to seek work and schooling.
Mr Thing said: ‘I tried to get support from the local community but everyone had their own problems - no one could really help on the day.
‘But people did rally when I couldn’t afford the funeral. My neighbours contributed and paid her the right respects.’
He agreed to let both daughters set off for India after being touched by the younger one’s ongoing anguish.
He said: ‘She kept crying, saying “Please get me out of this village”. Hopefully she can continue her studies out there, with her sister looking out for her.’
Meanwhile his son has just left for Kathmandu, looking for work - and despite rumours he might be working in a hotel, Mr Thing has been unable to get in touch so far.
But he insisted: ‘Now this house is being built for me, at least I can survive alone.
‘I do get worried all the time for my children and wonder what they’re going through. If they hadn’t lost their mother, life would have been easier.
‘They worry about me too, but I tell them I’m fine.
‘After all, there are so many people in similar situations - so many houses have collapsed. I’m not the only one. I just wish everyone could get help.’
Historic structures in the heart of the capital Kathmandu collapsed - causing dozens of deaths - when last April’s 7.8-magnitude disaster hit.
These include one named after the Kama Sutra for its erotic decor and another dubbed ‘Hippie Temple’ after crowds attracted in the Sixties and Seventies - including, apocryphally, ex-Beatle George Harrison.
But city council chief architect Amit Bajracharya, now in charge of rebuilding or at least restoring the worst-hit structures, worries many may be damaged or destroyed for good.
His authority has drawn up a list of those that need tackling, but only four have been given provisional permission for work - with another ten on a back-up list.
While government priorities now understandably rest on replacing family homes wiped out in the quake, Mr Bajracharya insists the toll taken on symbols of Nepal’s heritage has a heavy knock-on effect on national morale - and economic prospects.
Locals tell him they want the monuments rebuilt, and using as many traditional designs and materials as possible - while yet insisting money and priority should be given to rehoming people.
But he is having to wait for the new Nepalese financial year to begin this summer before even the first restoration projects can get the official go-ahead.
Mr Bajracharya said: ‘In my opinion it will take a lot of time - five years, maybe ten years or more.
‘We have lots of obstacles - not only manpower but a lack of building materials like timber and bricks.
‘It’s certainly affecting tourism - last autumn would have been the peak time for visitors but numbers were definitely down.
‘That’s what Kathmandu depends on, although at least other regions do pull people in for hiking and trekking.
He acknowledged: ‘You can’t only blame the earthquake.
‘There’s been a lot of damage done, but we do have a lack of skill and a lack of manpower.’
Another is the Gaddhi Baithak palace, built on the orders of former prime minister Jung Bahadur in 1908 after the fashion of London’s National Gallery following a starstruck visit he made to England.
The four monuments earmarked for initial rebuilding are the Kasthmandap, Narayan, Bishweshwor and Maju Dega temples in central Kathmandu - the latter being the one nicknamed ‘Hippie Temple’.