KATHMANDU, Nepal – Four days after the earthquake ripped apart the supporting wall attaching her ancient brick house to the tilting seven-story building next door, Parbati Gautam moved back in.
As the aftershocks keep coming, she can't stop thinking about the wretched state of the four-story structure where she and her husband operate a narrow, soot-streaked bakery on the first floor — and the closet-sized room behind that where they sleep with their two little girls.
The building was so rattled by the huge April 25 quake that fist-sized cracks spread like webs across the walls and ceilings, connecting in places like small river deltas seen from the air. And then there's the giant peach-colored building that looms unsteadily over her home and workplace.
"I feel like could die anytime. But I have to work, and I have no other place to go," she says as her husband cooks small pastries behind her on a gas stove. Before moving back, they slept under the open skies, without a tent or tarp, until her fear that thieves would steal her baking equipment, and the need to make money, drove them back home. "I worry about the children, but what other choice do we have?"
In the shattered neighborhoods of Kathmandu, down buckled, potholed dirt roads, similar stories emerge.
Although fear has driven many survivors to relatives' homes in the countryside, and some still live outside in vacant lots amid pancaked homes, others have made a wrenching decision.
They have returned to buildings that the earthquake rocked partially off their foundations, so that the backs sag dangerously below the fronts like an animal squatting on its haunches. Or to homes where the brick has crumbled. Or where the walls have split, the facades droop and the balconies slant toward the ground below.
Experts have warned that many of the city's buildings may have been "softened up" by the magnitude-7.8 quake, and a big aftershock, coming closer to the densely packed capital than the earthquake did, could be devastating. The U.N. humanitarian chief said on a visit this week that the most urgent need is shelter. She called for an assessment of buildings to see which ones are too dangerous to live in.
But many of the citizens of Kathmandu can't afford to wait.
None of those interviewed on a recent visit to some of the hardest hit neighborhoods had any long-term plans for rebuilding or strengthening their homes. None had seen a government inspector or structural engineer.
When pressed about why they've returned, they shrug and offer up a variation of the same question: "What else could I do?"
In the same building where Gautam's family lives, Pushpa Man Shrestha can relax a little during the day, when other people are around. But at night, when it's just him, he's too scared to sleep. He leaves the door open so he can flee quickly if an aftershock brings the building down.
Bricks are exposed under the shattered, green-painted plaster. Dust swirls in sunlight that filters in between the large cracks where the house has been ripped from the big building next door.
"If a big enough earthquake comes, this house might fall on me," Shrestha, 53, says. "I'm very frightened, but what can I do? I have to protect the possessions here. There are thieves everywhere."
On the roof of Khim Bahadur's stately four-story home, the concrete slab platform that once held his water tank has been knocked over and cracked; it juts into the air at an angle and seems ready to fall to the street below. There are cracks on each floor, and along the foundation.
"I still don't know if it's dangerous or not," says Bahadur, 40, who works in construction. "I'm maybe 70 percent confident, and 30 percent worried. No one around here knows if their homes are OK. That's the most worrying thing."
A neighbor presses a handwritten note begging for shelter into a reporter's hand.
From Bahadur's roof, you can see the green mountains surrounding Kathmandu plunging into a valley filled with homes painted in pink, yellow and blue pastels, some with dozens of multi-colored prayer flags snapping in the strong wind. But look closer and there are buildings not so different from Bahadur's that have crumbled into piles of rubble and cracked concrete.
Anu Shrestha and six members of her family sleep in a one-room shack in the shadow of where they once lived, an 82-year-old brick building that the quake battered into near-collapse. The building they're in now isn't much better.
To enter the compound, you walk over a fallen brick wall, past a toppled slab of concrete that rests on a smashed scooter and motorcycle. Inside, it's dark and reeks of mildew. There's no electricity or running water. The back wall has collapsed, a blue tarp hanging in its place. The ceiling is another blue tarp, the roof above that is made of tin sheets held down by wood and bricks.
"We're not safe here," Shrestha, 31, says. "I feel I will die now."
Five of their neighbors were killed in the quake. They only remain because they need to protect their cosmetics shop.
"We don't want to stay here, but we don't know what to do," she says.