A year is a long time, and in Nepal, the length of the year since the April 25, 2015, earthquake is relative: it depends who you ask.
For the government, it’s been quite a short year: it hasn’t been able to accomplish much of the reconstruction work.
But for the earthquake survivors, it’s been one of the longest years. The quake swallowed their houses, shattered their livelihoods, and a year later, they’re still struggling to pick up the pieces.
It’s been 366 days since the 7.8-magnitude earthquake shattered parts of Nepal, including the capital Kathmandu. It was 11:56 a.m. when the ground shook – it was first a thud and then a thunderous roar that echoed from beneath.
It was violent and lasted almost a minute. It was so violent that I couldn’t reach for the door. My heart pounded, legs trembled, and my thoughts froze. And when it stopped, my surroundings had changed in a matter of seconds.
The street outside my house had cracked, and though many of our houses survived the tremor, just a few meters away, a neighbor’s two-story house had collapsed entirely.
And just an hour later, as I clutched my notebook and ran uncomfortably in my flip-flops while still in shock, in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the city’s century-old palatial courtyard, I witnessed history was erased, almost. Several historic monuments and temples were levelled – and people were buried inside.
The chaos and the commotion in my hometown that day — and the powerful aftershock on May 12 — seemed as if a doomsday prediction had finally come true.
While Kathmandu and its surrounding areas, including Bhaktapur, Sankhu, Bungmati and Harisiddhi, suffered incomprehensible damage, tiny hamlets outside the city were entirely hammered.
In Sindhupalchowk, the district with the highest casualties, I witnessed death, destruction and despair. The scale of the seismic shift was devastating.
“There are no houses left in my village,” Sujan, one of the waiters who worked at my friend’s restaurant, told me hours after the earthquake, as he was making desperate phone calls to his family members in Sindhupalchowk.
Upon visiting the district five days later, I could see what Sujan meant: settlements in Sindhupalchowk were obliterated. Schools, hospitals, and houses were smashed by the quake.
This is where I met Uddhav. The 28-year-old was trying to see a doctor in a makeshift medical camp in the district headquarters of Chautara on a sweltering May afternoon.
The drive to his small village through a snaking dirt road was striking – it was a stark paradox between nature’s beauty versus the power of its devastation.
The view of the snow-capped Himalayas, rolling hills and gushing rivers was eclipsed by flattened villages and collapsed homes. Uddhav’s village was one of them.
Sitting on his hard bed with no mattress, under a temporary tent house, he told his story without any visible emotions.
“I’ve lost everything,” he said, his eyes fixated on the ground.
The earthquake not only injured him but also killed his wife and two children. His two-story house was now nothing but a mountain of rubble.
“I need to be strong – I can’t show my tears to my mother,” he said, as his grieving mother sat beside him and wept profusely.
It had been more than a week after the quake when I visited Sindhupalchowk, and survivors like Uddhav were desperately looking for help – water, food, tarpaulin sheets, tents. Anything.
And while local and international non-profits, and most importantly, volunteers from communities across Nepal mobilized to deliver assistance, the government was slow to react. The red tape made humanitarian assistance entangled in bureaucratic web with little sense of urgency.
“It seems like we are invisible,” Laxmi Gole told me last year. She was infuriated and were among the locals blocking part of the road in Sindhupalchowk that led to the district headquarters in Chautara.
It’s been a year and many earthquake survivors still haven’t received much from the state. Thousands of people like Uddhav have given up hope that the government or the representatives they elected and sent to Kathmandu would act on their behalf.
Most survivors still live in temporary shelters where they braved the monsoon rains, frigid winter and the stormy spring early this year. They feel ignored by the government.
A US$4.1 billion pledge by the international community has more or less turned into a fairytale fantasy. The country’s National Reconstruction Authority, responsible to lead the reconstruction efforts, was buried in a bureaucratic dillydally and was dormant until a few months ago. The Prime Minister Disaster Fund Relief, along with local and international aid organizations, raised millions of dollars in the aftermath of the quake, but the ones who need it the most seem to be entirely out of the equation. Alhough the survivors whose houses were destroyed were to receive Rs. 200,000 from the state, it was not until last week that they received Rs. 50,000 as the first installment – that too, only 641 of the thousands of survivors.
The promulgation of the new constitution in September was seen as an answer to many of Nepal’s problems but it further plunged the country into crisis. And as much as the government hailed the controversial constitution as inclusive, many ethnic groups and women felt alienated. As a result, the southern plains burned, unsatisfied India imposed an economic blockade — it denies the accusations though — and the country’s ailing economy slumped further while the government watched from a distance, indulging in inconclusive talks with the agitating parties and failing to address the issue.
At least 55 people, including civilians and security personnel, died between August and September – it was believed to be the most violent protests since the end of the bloody Maoist conflict a decade ago.
Up in the hills, as winter approached, people were dying, too. By late December, at least 22 people had died. They were able to survive the seismic shake but succumbed to the state’s apathy.
Come spring, the situation has not changed much.
Far from home, as I sit to read an avalanche of articles, many reporters have picked up stories where they left a year ago. And even amid the most encouraging stories, there was agony.
Al Jazeera’s 101 East team — I was a part of last year’s film — also revisited Uddhav and his village. And though there were signs of early progress, life was perilous for many.
Hundreds of men like Uddhav, who already had debt since before the quake days, have taken out additional loans and are now drowned in debt. Many are considering going to the Middle East or Malaysia for foreign employment despite the risks. Almost 1,500 Nepalis leave for foreign employment every day to feed their families back home, and while many return with considerable sum of money and stories of hardship in a foreign land, the unfortunate ones come back in coffins.
And yet, they are determined to leave – just like Uddhav, who told me while visiting Kathmandu months after the quake, that given a chance, he would leave despite his injuries.
Uddhav’s story is indicative of the government’s lethargic reaction to cope with the country’s biggest natural disaster since the 1934 earthquake.
“There’s nothing left,” Uddhav told me.
After what seemed to be the longest year for many survivors, they still have nothing left but hollow promises from the state.
And as leaders release balloons and light candles in Kathmandu to remember the dead at the first year anniversary of the quake that killed nearly 9,000 people, they seem to be less concerned about the living.
Those balloons will deflate and the candles burn out, and no one will remember what the leaders did to mark the earthquake anniversary. But people will never forget that they were forgotten when they needed their government the most.