On 12 May 2008, the central Chinese province of Sichuan was hit by a massive earthquake. This is one of the many features I filed during the two weeks I spent in the disaster zone.

It was published by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands. 

 

CHINA WAITS FOR THE DEAD

Four days after a devastating earthquake struck China, mourning the dead replaces hoping for survivors. Throughout the disaster zone in Sichuan province, lifeless bodies are being pulled from the rubble.

by REMKO TANIS

in HAN WANG, Sichuan, China

17 May 2008

It has been three days now but Duo Ming Hong keeps coming back to the pile of debris which, until Monday at 14.28h, was the school of her son Feng (12). Her hope to find him alive morphs slowly into a fear for the worst. It has been more than a day since the last child was found here alive. The number of dead students found is multiple times larger.

Every few hours Duo (38) returns to the tent she shares with thirty other survivors. She tries to sleep. ,,But how can I rest, knowing my only child is somewhere in there'', she says, pointing at the destroyed school. Her eyes are red from tears and fatigue. ,,When the earth started shaking, I ran to the school. But when I got there the building had already collapsed. This is too horrendous to be true.''

 

One wall is the only thing of the school left standing. A blackboard shows the lesson the students were absorbing when the earthquake struck Monday afternoon.

Now these students are buried under the concrete. At least seven hundred of the thousand children attending the school are still unaccounted for. General wisdom has it a person can survive being buried under rubble for up to 72 hours. Those have long passed here.

 

The earthquake has obliterated the small town of Han Wang, one hundred and thirty kilometers north of the provincial capital of Chengdu.

The school is down a road which a police officer describes as 'the kilometer of death'. ,,Everything is destroyed'', he says. ,,All that's left are mountains of debris with thousands of people buried in them.''

He tries to stop desperate people who drove for hours to come here and search for relatives. ,,Don't bother'', the officer tells them. ,,There is nothing and no one left here. The situation is still life threatening because of the after shocks and the gasses in the air from decaying bodies. I'm sorry to be frank, but the air here is pure poison. Death and poison.''

 

People leave their cars behind and walk down Han Wang's Kilometer of Death. They dig into the rubble with bare hands, desperate to find their loved ones. Others sit on the side of the road, despair rmarking their faces and with stunned, empty glares from their eyes. They wear masks to protect them from the sharp scent and thick dust in the air.

 

In front of the school four boys play with their masks. They are they only young ones in a crowd of scared parents who witness soldiers breaking down the pile of debris stone by stone.

 

This is no place for children, where parents cave publicly when a child's corpse is found.

 

A father looses control when the lifeless body of his son is lifted from the ruins of the school. He falls to the ground and starts whaling, his entire body shaking vehemently. Two men try to lift him up by his arms to take him away. His legs drag over the dusty ground, as if life has left them.

 

It is a common scene in front of the school. People mourn the loss of their only son or daughter openly. Cries and shouts join the poignant smell and thick dust in the air. Slowly, they realize the school's rubble is nothing else but a massive tomb. They cry, saying they lost their reason to live. No matter how long it might take to rebuild Han Wang, this is a town that has lost its next generation.

 

 

The Kilometer of Death is a four lane asphalt road dividing Han Wang. The only thing standing along this road is a clock tower. Its hands are stuck at twenty-eight minutes past the hour, the moment of the quake. It's the stuff movies are made of, but this is reality.

Rescuers continue their work around the clock, but there are too few. Four days after the quake, there is still hundreds of meters of destruction lining the road which they have yet to get to.

There, an eerie silence fills the air, as if no one is here. But there are people buried here, dead or alive, just as there are tens of thousands of others still unaccounted for in similar piles of rubble throughout the disaster zone.

 

 

Mu Yan is sitting on a little yellow chair in front of what used to be the house of her mother- in-law. The number sign of the house, 251, sticks out of the rubble. Here too, only one wall is still standing.

It has the things Mu knew so well from her daily visits to the house. The yellow and green tiles of the bathroom on the second floor. And in the room next to it, the drawings on the wall which Mu's daughter made for grandma.

One of the drawings has three people in it under a blue sky. On the one next to it, Mu's daughter had drawn fireworks in the sky over a line of houses which now don't exist anymore.

Grandma (50) is somewhere in the rubble. Together with her neighbor. Rescuers have been searching for two days for signs of life, but now a bulldozer has taken over. The operator stares past the wheel of his bulldozer at the mountain of destruction, which most likely is now the grave of the two women.

With all the subtlety a bulldozer can afford, the machine shifts the debris to the side. Every now and then, it retreats and allows firemen to move rocks by hand. Mu sits there, looking at the scene, fighting her tears. Each time the bulldozer backs up, she starts to shake, knowing that each time can reveal her mother's body.

The deep low sound the bulldozer's engine makes when it starts up again pairs with a thick plume of black smoke from its exhaust. These are the marks of desperation for Mu, signs that the firemen haven't found her husband's mother.

 

Yellow is bad news in Han Wang. It's the color of the bulldozers. Orange is good. Orange is the color of the outfits of rescue workers who have been trained to find survivors under debris. As long as there is orange, there is hope. But when yellow comes to your home, all is lost.

 

Three men sit on top of a pile of rubble. Rescue workers nor bulldozers have made it to this part of the Kilometer of Death yet. One of the men squats next to a small crack in the ruins, trying to look into the darkness underneath. Softly, he hits the concrete with a hammer. Tick tick. Then he waits quietly, hoping to hear sounds of survivors.

He reaches into the opening and again: tick tick. Nothing. He does not want to talk. He wants to search. Even if he finds nothing but darkness and silence.

 

 

With each kilometer further into the mountains of central Sichuan, the evidence of the destructive force of Monday's quake becomes clearer. Not knowing what else to do, some people here have simply resumed their day to day work in the rice fields.

Others keep digging into debris with their bare hands, trying to rescue some of their valuable possessions. Danger looms large: still standing walls can collapse at any moment, leaning on nothing more than shifted pillars.

 

The complete destruction of Han Wang defies the imagination of how horrid things must be deeper into the mountains. These are areas which rescue workers have not been able to reach until Thursday, 72 hours after the quake. Their first reports speak of vanished villages and an overall worse situation than expected.

 

The Chinese government has raised the number of expected casualties to 'over fifty thousand'. Until today, twenty thousand bodies have been found. At least forty thousand people are still missing.

The expression in the faces of the survivors is a confession to what they know about where those missing are: they're buried under piles of rubble like those along Han Wang's Kilometer of Death.