FUKUSHIMA PREFECTURE, Japan (Reuters) – Even before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck knocking out the Fukushima nuclear plant, Aya's life was a struggle.
She had divorced her abusive husband and was left on her own to care and provide for her two daughters.
Now, six months after she fled her home just 9 km (6 miles) away from the radiation-spewing plant, the 26-year old single mother is barely surviving. She has no job, languishes in hiding from her violent ex-husband in temporary housing and will probably never see her home again.
"It feels like a hole has opened inside me. My home was so important to me and I felt safe there," said Aya who would not give her family name or disclose her exact location out of fear her ex-husband could find her.
"It's like time has just stopped. Ever since March 11, the time has stopped for me."
The tsunami left 20,000 dead or missing, set off the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl a quarter of a century ago and forced 80,000 to evacuate.
It hit particularly hard those who were already down on their luck. There were reports of lone deaths in temporary housing and suicide rates jumped in the quake-battered regions.
After the disaster Aya was evacuated to a nearby gymnasium, but could not stay there as Noa - her younger four-year-old daughter - cannot walk because of a split spine and needs special care. The older, six-year-old Kurea has no disabilities and goes to school.
"Noa's father then called and we went to Saitama (north of Tokyo). He said the hospitals were up and running there, so I decided to do it for Noa's sake," says Aya as she puts braces around her younger daughter's legs as they prepare for a trip to the kindergarten.
"He soon started beating us up. It was so insane, I just had to flee again. Ignoring the risk of radiation I came back up to Fukushima prefecture," says Aya, zipping her daughter's backpack.
She now lives in a modest apartment in one of the prefecture's bigger cities sharing the fate of the tens of thousands that six months after the disaster still do not have a permanent home.
About 10,000 still live in evacuation shelters, 34,000 stay in hotels or with relatives or friends and 40,000 live in temporary housing.
"I also lost my job as an insurance agent as my company moved to a different town," says Aya. With her daughter in kindergarten, she goes job hunting and says any job that would let her check on Noa from time to time will do.
Landing a job is tough, though, as the influx of evacuees from the tsunami-hit areas doubled the number of job-seekers in the Fukushima prefecture.
Like other evacuees, she blames the government for dragging its feet on mapping out the area's future.
Only last week, Tokyo said it would aim to halve radiation over two years in places contaminated by the nuclear disaster, removing soil, plants and trees in an area spanning thousands of square km. But it is not clear when, if ever, the evacuees will be able to return home.
"I want them to come out into the open and to say it clearly: you will or will not be able to go back to your place. If not, I want them to tell me what am I, and thousands of other people, supposed to do," says Aya in a trembling voice.
"I have to wonder if I'll be able to build my life here. I just can't even begin to think about what to do in the future."
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Thatcher)