Millions Homeless in Sichuan

Five million people are without permanent shelter in the wake of last week's earthquake, with rescuers now beginning to call off the search for survivors. China's leaders have appealed for international aid supplies, saying a further 3 million tents are needed.
2008-05-22 - MIANZHU CITY, Sichuan
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As the relief operation in China's quake-hit southwestern province shifted its focus to delivering aid supplies to remote areas cut off by the May 12 tremor, local people are also moving around in large numbers in search of loved ones.

At least 80,000 people are dead or missing following the 7.9 magnitude quake last week, and troops spearheading the relief operation have abandoned the search for survivors under the rubble.

In Beichuan county, Sichuan, where two-thirds of the population was killed in the quake, everyone had moved away from the worst-hit areas, leaving behind only the rescuers working to dispose of dead bodies in the rubble.

"Everyone has moved out now. The only people left behind are the ones dealing with the corpses because there are so many of them," a soldier directing the relief effort in the area said.

"Apart from dealing with the dead, we also have to repair roads and infrastructure, and deliver food and water to quake survivors in the disaster area. We are delivering food and water to any areas which are still accessible by road," he said, adding that the authorities had now set up a disaster relief command center in the county town to serve the surrounding relief effort, he said.

In the countryside near Mianzhu city, Sichuan province, people were making their way across the region's deep valleys on footpaths and byways, as expressways and viaducts lay in a twisted heap on the valley floor.

1,000 killed in school collapse

In Hanwang township, which was almost totally destroyed by the quake, one woman anxiously scanning a hastily pasted series of lists on a wall near the high school said she was looking for news of her son.

"My son was staying with relatives at the time of the earthquake. I haven't seen them since," she said, her eyes desperately combing the notices, amid a the stench of decomposing bodies emanating from nearby collapsed buildings.

The school buildings in Hanwang collapsed totally, killing 1,000 children. After 600 bodies were dug out of the rubble, the People's Liberation Army used explosives to level the pile of broken concrete and twisted girders, because it had become impossible to dig out the bodies, she said.

Everyone approaching Hanwang is subject to strict quarantine regulations, as the authorities mobilise epidemic prevention teams across the quake-stricken region.

A local official said the town was now also under threat from flooding and possible landslides after nearby Yanse lake was split into several smaller lakes, and the neighboring mountain subsided by at least 17 meters.

"We are trying to figure out how to release the water," he says. "We have to be on standby."

Medicines running out

Around 10,000 PLA troops have parachuted into Hanwang, where 90 percent of the buildings have been destroyed. They had already used explosives to level the school buildings after the hope of finding anyone left alive ran out.

Meanwhile, medical teams in Mianyang city were running out of basic drugs to help prevent epidemics, one volunteer said.

"We don't have enough medicines, particularly for colds and flu, and for diarrhea and for skin infections," he said. "There are a lot of people here with diarrhea and colds or flu viruses."

China's media coverage of the disaster has been unprecedented in its openness, with a freedom of coverage seldom seen in the Communist Party-controlled media.

But in nearby An county, local residents slammed the performance of local officials, saying that reporters still weren't getting the whole story.

"There was no organized evacuation," one resident in his seventies said. "After the quake we lived in tents for two or three days and no one from the government looked after us." 

Remote areas 'forgotten'

"If the county Party secretary and the county chief dared to show their faces now they would be crucified," he said. "Eventually we got some food."

Another man in his thirties said: "Our town is a forgotten corner in the quake-devastated area. 70 percent of the houses here have been rendered uninhabitable."

Residents also expressed concern that the reconstruction effort would pass them by, leaving them under canvas for many months to come.

"If the government does not do a good job with reconstruction, if we are still living in tents when the cold and damp Sichuan winter arrives...there will be trouble," he said.

Five million people have been made homeless by the earthquake, with millions of others facing disease and possible "secondary disasters", like landslides, flooding from blocked rivers and aftershocks.

Ten days after the quake, there is an acute shortage of tents, with China's leaders calling on the international community to help fill a shortage of three million tents. So far, donated tents totaling 400,000 have reached the disaster zone.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Lin Di and in Cantonese by Hai Nan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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