Disaster deja vu
â€śZhouquâ€ť in Tibetan means the Bailong River, which runs across the once peaceful county. Surrounded by hills, this small settlement was where just over one week ago, a landslide charged through the main street. 1100 people were killed and more than 600 remain missing – who are presumed dead.
Having returned from covering this disaster, I find it difficult to resume my normal life. I think back over the last 7 days, and I cannot stop feeling how similar the towns of Zhouqu and Beichuan are. (Beichuan was almost entirely destroyed during the 2008 earthquake that left more than 86,000 people dead, and over 12,000 missing). Both these towns are similar in the following respects: landform, residents, architecture, and the arrival of thousands of rescue workers and soldiers. I can say this, because I have now been in both places covering similar disasters. The only difference is, horribly and sadly, the number of victims.
ON THE WAY
As soon as I was told about the disaster on August 8, I began to search for the nearest airport to Zhouqu, of which there are four: Lanzhou in Gansu province, Xining in Qinghai province, Chengdu in Sichuan province and Xi’an in Shaanxi province.
Because the air tickets were in high demand, I couldnâ€™t get to the nearest airport, but was able to get a flight to Xi’an. August 7 was my birthday, so half way to the airport I finished the other half of my birthday cake. In the mad rush to get ready, I had not eaten anything. After arriving in Xiâ€™an, it took 14 hours by car and 2 more hours walking before I reached the mudslide at around 1 p.m. on August 9. However, it seemed that I wasn’t late at all. Most people were still wandering around puzzled and confused by what had just occurred.
AT THE SITE
With machines growling, people crying, shovels and rocks colliding, the sounds of chaos came from everywhere, echoing around the valley.
Rescue troops in different colored uniforms moved in front of me, sirens blared from rescue vehicles, and thick dust blanketed everything that remained and that which was newly arrived – including myself and my cameras.
I stood at the site of the landslide, which was 3,000 meters long and 500 meters wide, consisting of mud and rocks. This massive amount of earth is what engulfed almost 2,000 people. I was shocked and could not believe what I was seeing. It took some time before I took my first picture.
I couldn’t see them, but in my heart I knew people were under the mud. I found myself not feeling as sad about the dead, but for those who had survived because I could see them in front of me – yelling, screaming and crying. I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to move on after such an event. My eyes were wet with tears.
One of the moments I remember most was the scene of a family burning a packet of instant noodles as an offering to their relatives who had died. It made me realize that this offering, as small as it might be, was probably the only comfort this family could afford to offer their dead.