In some sections of Nepal, the small South Asian nation that was devastated by two large earthquakes in April and May, 2015, it looks as if the disaster that killed nearly 9,000 people struck only weeks ago. Villages across the country remain strewn with rubble, the quake-victims living in tents and flimsy sheds. After being forced to endure a monsoon and the freezing Himalayan winter in temporary housing or in relief camps, thousands remain vulnerable as the country prepares for another set of monsoon rainstorms this summer. Yet, nearly a year on from the 7.8 and 7.3 magnitude ruptures, there is little sign of any rebuilding.
“It was surprising to see just how little had been done over the course of the year,” says TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey, who returned to the country at the end of March. The first place visited by Nachtwey, who was in the country last year to record the immediate aftermath of the disaster, was a tented camp in Kathmandu. “It was right in the urban heart of the city,” he recalls. “People were living in makeshift tents in what is a pretty large encampment. It was striking that they were still here, in the center of the capital.”
The picture beyond the capital was no more encouraging. “There wasn’t much headway in fixing up the damage. In some places, the rubble had been pushed aside and building materials were stacked and ready to be used in rebuilding homes. But there was little activity.”
Across Nepal, millions were affected by the disaster, from the hills of Sindhupalchok, where 90% of homes were destroyed, to remote villages such as Barpak that was at the epicenter of the April quake, high up on a steep mountainside in the hard-hit north-western Gorkha district. In the days and weeks after the disaster, with furious landslides jamming routes all along the treacherous alpine terrain, numerous other remote villages were cut-off from the rest of Nepal, leaving them accessible only by helicopter. Communities large and small were rendered homeless and helpless overnight, as pent-up energy from the constant collision of two subterranean slabs of rock known as the Indian and Eurasian plates rippled out across one of the world’s poorest countries.
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To aid Nepal, international donors pledged $4.1 billion dollars at a June conference in Kathmandu. But the money to rebuild homes has been held back by Nepal’s fractious politics, as the country’s leaders engaged in a protracted fight over a new constitution that triggered violent protests among communities living along the country’s southern border with India. Known as Madhesis, members of these border communities have for years complained of being sidelined by the more dominant ethnic groups drawn from areas around Kathmandu. As they protested that the new constitution approved in September had been rushed through without adequate protections for their interests, the border was blocked for 135 days until the document was amended earlier this year. (Nepal blamed India for abetting the protestors, who have close language and cultural ties on the other side of the border; New Delhi denied the charge.)
For earthquake victims, the result was an almost complete stop in the rebuilding effort. Many analysts fear further turmoil, warning that the constitutional amendments didn’t fully address the grievances of the protestors.
“You could see some private rebuilding work in Barpak, as the mountain community pulled together. But beyond that there was little sign of progress since last year,” says Nachtwey, who, as he travelled around Nepal, was repeatedly struck by the resilience of ordinary citizens forced to continue living among the rubble of their former homes.
“I saw this last year, in the days and weeks after the earthquake,” he adds. “What struck me then was how, in the face of so much physical destruction and in many cases family tragedy, ordinary people responded with tremendous resilience. In mountain districts like Gorkha, they were beginning right away to put their lives back together,” he recalls. “Today, the situation remains desperate. But the people in Barpak and other mountain communities continue to display an immense inner strength and fortitude amid such devastation.”
James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.
Nikhil Kumar is TIME’s South Asia Bureau Chief. Follow him on Twitter @nkreports.