SANKHU, NEPAL - The paved alleys are still lined by the skeletons of homes once filled with families. Shop shelves are empty, and the water well in the center of town remains clogged by fallen debris. Children carefully side-step piles of broken brick on their way to school.
This is life today in the tiny Nepalese farming town of Sankhu, once famed for its lively Hindu temple festivals and rich produce markets just outside the capital of Kathmandu.
Nearly everything was lost on April 25, 2015, when a terrifying earthquake shook the Himalayan nation, killing more than 9,000 people and toppling nearly a million homes nationwide. Little progress has been made in the two years since, raising questions about the government's commitment to the recovery effort as well as the fate of billions of dollars in foreign aid.
In Sankhu, where the quake claimed 98 lives and toppled 800 homes, most of the remaining residents have struggled to restore what they once had. Many say they have yet to receive any help from the government despite pledges of aid money and help with bank loans.
‘Ruins and no hope’
“Our town was once one of the best known towns in the country,” said 70-year-old Komal Nath Shrestha. “Now all we have is ruins and no hope.”
Shrestha spent four hours after the quake buried in the rubble of his ruined four-story home before family members pulled him out. Now, he is among hundreds in Sankhu living in tin sheds and tarpaulin tents that have popped up in fields and along roadsides as meager protection from winter cold and summer rains.
The violence and devastation wrought by the earthquake dominated newspaper headlines worldwide and triggered an outpouring of foreign concern. Aid pledges totaling $4.2 billion poured in - about half what the government estimates it will cost to rebuild homes and infrastructure.
The government is still collecting that foreign aid, with agreements signed already for $3.1 billion. But to date, it has spent only $330,000.
That's allowed Nepal to rebuild just 3.5 percent of 626,694 homes so far counted as having been destroyed in the quake. And even that count is incomplete, including only homes in the 14 worst-hit districts. There are still another 17 districts to survey.
‘Refugees in our home town’
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Nepalese left homeless by the quake are preparing to spend a third rainy season hunkered down in temporary shelters, often flooded and exposed to the elements, relying on handouts of one-time sales for cash to get by.
“We are refugees in our home town,” said Ram Shahi, who was Sankhu's butcher until the quake put him out of business. “We have bugs and even snakes crawling inside the tin sheds when it rains. We cannot cook because the floor is flooded and clothes get all soaked.”
The government has been criticized for moving slowly in dispersing funds that would allow people to rebuild on their own. It has said those who need to rebuild would be offered a first aid installment of 50,000 rupees, or $485, followed by second $1,455 payment and a third worth $970. If families needed more, it said they would be offered low-interest loans for up to $24,270.
But only first installments have been given so far to 87 percent of families that have qualified for aid.
‘That money was peanuts’
For the rice farming families of Shree Krishna Singh and his brother, that $485 payment falls far short of the $72,800 it's cost them to rebuild their shattered home.
“That money was peanuts, not even enough to dig and lay the foundation,” Singh said. Still, they consider themselves among the lucky in that they could sell their rice field to build a new, white concrete home. Now, though, they're out of work.
Others have been far less fortunate.
“The tin roofs are leaking,” retired teacher Satya Narayan said of the makeshift shelter he's occupied since the quake. “We get water all over the ground. It gets cold at night, and like an oven in the day.”
But Narayan hasn't even qualified for earthquake assistance, because like many in Nepal, where records are haphazard, he doesn't have the documents to prove he owns his land.
A report by the rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday accused Nepal of failing to help some of the most marginalized among its quake victims, with tens of thousands locked out of the reconstruction program because they can't prove land ownership.
‘Grant is not enough’
Officials with the National Reconstruction Authority acknowledge their efforts are falling short.
“The grant is not enough,” but it is meant to help people get started rebuilding their homes, said Govind Raj Pokharel, who heads the National Reconstruction Authority.
He said the government hopes people will follow earthquake safety standards in their construction, but admits the aid won't cover most of the costs. He said the government was trying to persuade the central bank to work on the loans, but so far terms have yet to be finalized.
A bigger challenge, Pokharel said, is that the agency does not have control over the aid money, but has to rely on government ministries to send out needed funds. The result is bureaucratic delay.
Bank orders from the National Reconstruction Authority often go ignored, according to Mona Sherpa of the Swiss nonprofit agency Helvetas. Their work helping victims with reconstruction has been frustrating, she admitted.
“We wanted to start work, but then as we got into this process we realized that the process itself is really lengthy,” she said, blaming bureaucracy and a lack of coordination between construction agencies and authorities for chronic delays.