Giant on the move
Disaster in Sichuan
I was one of the first foreign reporters on the scene after a devastating earthquake hit the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on May 12.
It all seemed so normal when I arrived in the provincial capital Chengdu, some 12 hours after the 7.9 magnitude tremor hit, that I thought maybe the area had got off lightly. But heading in the hard hit town of Dujiangyan, just north of Chengdu, two hours after arriving in Sichuan, I realised how bad the situation was.
Dujiangyan looked like a war zone. There wasn’t a building that had not been damaged. Some had lost just a wall, or had a few cracks. Others had crumpled into the ground, as though a giant foot had descended from out of the sky and stamped on them.
Survivors, for the main part, either stood around in a state of total shock, or huddled together in tents, buses and cars, trying to avoid the drizzle that made what was already a depressing scene a thoroughly miserable and distressing one.
We had heard that a school in the town had collapsed. Finding it was not a problem — everyone could point the way there.
Soldiers and police had formed a cordon around the school to prevent overwrought relatives from rushing onto the rubble and look for their children themselves. In none of my stories from Dujiangyan did I quote one of these relatives directly.
I couldn’t talk to them; it upset me too much. I tried, but when I thought I might burst into tears myself, I had to look away, almost ashamed that I was unable to perform the job that I had been sent there to do — report.
In the days that followed what impressed me most was the huge outpouring of kindness from people in cities like Chengdu which had not been as badly affected by the quake.
At one refugee centre at a stadium in the city of Mianyang, where thousands had sought shelter, I saw an endless stream of voulunteers coming in bringing whatever they thought would help.
One lady from a village next to the stadium had cooked up a huge vat of rice porridge and brought it over on the back of her tricycle, and was busy handing it out to anyone who wanted it. “I just had to help,” she told me.
Others brought in bags of clothes, bottles of water and packs of instant noodles. One volunteer tried to give me some water, saying she thought I looked like a “hard-pressed reporter”. I was touched by the sentiment, but could only decline and insist she give the bottles to survivors, who needed it a lot more than me.
In the last few months a swirl of bad publicity has surrounded China in the run-up to this summer’s Beijing Olympics — notably with the problems in Tibet and the violence that accompanied parts of the international leg of the Olympic torch relay. It will be interesting to see how global public opinion, if you can call it that, will be affected by this earthquake, and if the almost incessant criticism of China now ends, or at least abates for a while.
Pictures of relatives trying to enter a collapsed school building and resident walking past a row of destroyed houses, both in Dujiangyan, by Claro Cortes IV/Reuters