Uyghurs Say Quake, Tent Shortage Has Forced Them To Live Outdoors

A Uyghur man warms himself in front of a stove fire after spending a second night sleeping in the open. A massive earthquake devastated the Chongqurchaq area bordering Kyrgyzstan in February 2003. File photo: AFP/Goh Chai Hin

WASHINGTON-Ethnic Uyghurs made homeless by an earthquake in China's northwestern corner say a shortage of emergency tents has forced them to live outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures and snow.

"I heard that the government set up two tents in our township, but I haven't seen any," one resident of hard-hit Yengi Awat Township told RFA's Uyghur service. "Here some people's houses are completely collapsed. Today is the third day people have been living outdoors. No one from the government has come here."

"It's very cold here at night, and it has been snowing for two days. Now it's accumulated...It melts during the day, and that is causing more damage to the structure of the houses," he said.

The quake struck at 7:38 a.m. on Feb. 14 with the epicenter in remote Wushi County near the border with Kyrgyzstan, according to the State Seismological Bureau of China.

Too few tents

Local sources said tens of thousands of local people were directly affected by the quake, and that more than two thousand homes had collapsed in the area. They reported some 900 aftershocks.

The disaster area has meanwhile been expanded to include one town and more than a hundred villages in Uchturpan.

An official with the Uchturpan town government disaster relief bureau, who asked to be identified by only his surname, Hu, said too few tents had been made available.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Provincial government sent only 300 tents, but there are more than 20,000 earthquake victims. That is why many people couldn't get tents.

"The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government sent only 300 tents, but there are more than 20,000 earthquake victims, " he said. "That is why many people couldn't get tents."

A 6.8-magnitude earthquake in February 2003 nearby in the foothills of the Tengri Mountains, which separate the area from Kyrgyzstan, claimed 268 lives and razed 20,000 houses. The quake also took a heavy toll on the local economy, which revolves around farming, with thousands of livestock killed.

Another local government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said authorities had provided emergency tents to people affected by the quake. "We provided tents for all people who lost their home during the earthquake, and there is no one living outdoors," the Yengi Awat Township official said.

A poverty-stricken region

But another vicitim, a resident of Ouch Village in Yengi Awat, said he too was living outdoors. "The government has not arrived here yet. We are living outside, and it is snowing and cool," the man said.

Local schools, roads, bridges, administrative offices, and water treatment facilities were also affected, local people said in telephone interviews.

"The aid is arriving very well on television, but we've received nothing yet," said another Uyghur man in the worst affected area.

A Chinese official, also interviewed by telephone, noted that a quake in the region would take an especially hard toll on residents because Uchturpan is one of Chinese poorest counties.

Uchturpan is located at the northeast edge of the Tarim Basin, about 90 kilometers west of Aksu City. Its population is officially reported as 180,000. Some 97 percent of residents are ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people with close ties to Central Asia.

Aksu City is the capital of Aksu Prefecture, located in the south-central part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.


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