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Victims of Saturday's earthquake rest inside an Indian Air Force helicopter as they are evacuated from Trishuli Bazar to the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 27, 2015. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Jitendra Prakash

On two sides of the crowded Tribhuvan International Airport in the wee hours of Monday morning, disparate groups of travellers are separated by thin plastic windows, but find themselves worlds apart.

Streaming in are Nepalese business travellers and ex-pat workers who dropped everything to return home, knowing their houses are ruined, and for some, family members are dead or missing after earthquakes laid to waste large areas of their country. Steps away, trekkers in brightly coloured outdoor gear drape themselves across departure lounges jammed with foreigners waiting for a way out.

Some spoke of dramatic escapes. Ole Andersen, a 66-year-old Danish adventurer, was in a brick guesthouse that crumbled around him when the earthquake struck. He escaped from his second-storey room on a bamboo ladder used by workers to chase away pigeons. It went "from paradise to hell in a few seconds," he said.

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For those leaving 36 hours after the first quake struck – it had been followed by power aftershocks – the violence of the experience remained fresh. "It scared the hell out of me. I thought I was going to die", said Linda Mountain, a 55-year-old municipal-tax analyst from Milton, Ont. "All I want to do is get home."

She was part of a group of eight who came to celebrate a friend's 60th birthday with a mountain trek. Their two-week vacation nearly complete, they were in a hotel when the shaking began. Jim McElroy, a 61-year-old from Elora, Ont., was sitting on a balcony chair that skidded more than a metre before he made for the steps out. "I would swear the stairs were oscillating a good 18 inches," he said.

Others in the group were getting massages and fell naked from the tables.

As the Canadians were waiting for an early morning flight home on Monday, Nagendra Rijal, a 40-year-old Nepalese anticorruption activist, was just arriving. He raced back Sunday from a conference in Delhi in hopes of finding his wife, who had left for the Tibetan border Saturday to pick up goods. She has not been heard from since and the anxiety has kept Mr. Rijal from eating. "I'm so worried," he said.

After checking in on his children Monday – a 10-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son – he planed to hop on a motorcycle and drive the 100 kilometres to the border in search of his wife.

He wasn't sure the road would be open, however, and faulted government corruption and ineptitude for the pain his country is feeling.

"We have poor systems, poor infrastructure. The government has not prepared well for disaster," he said.

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Rather than rely on government help, those coming back were preparing to rebuild, themselves. Richan Shrestha, 33, was on a business trip to Mumbai. The earthquake left his wife and two young children sleeping outside. Their family faces a long road ahead, he said.

"The first priority should be to secure the victims, then to get supplies and only then can we think about rebuilding."

Many flew in whatever basic goods they could assemble in their rush to the airport. Santosh Khatiwada, 25, quickly left work at a wine bar in Dubai. He had with him sleeping bags, blankets and a solar charger. The trip took 20 hours after his airplane was turned back on its first attempt to land when a powerful aftershock struck Kathmandu Sunday afternoon. By the time he arrived early Monday, he was happy to be back on home soil – but worried. His family was safe, but their home was destroyed.

"I hear in our village, all the houses completely collapsed. I need to find out what we can do," he said.

Next to him, waiting to leave the airport, sat Sina Laubli, his 30-year-old Swiss sister-in-law.

"I'm a bit afraid to go out and see what happened," she said.

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