KATHMANDU—The death toll from an earthquake that struck western China earlier this week stands at around 1,400 people and is expected to rise, as monks and rescue workers labor in shifts to take hundreds of bodies for cremation.
The cremations are in Yushu, in western China's Qinghai province. The area, high on the Tibetan plateau, was struck by a massive quake Wednesday.
Tibetan monks continue to arrive, and aid is pouring in from monasteries, residents said.
The damage is immense, with smaller towns on the outskirts of Gyegu [Jyekundo] town completely flattened and cracks now appearing on the Drichu river bridge.
Residents said authorities had set up a roadblock on the bridge to control which aid workers can enter.
A young man who rode a motorbike to reach Gyegu to look for his relatives complained of inequity in aid distribution.
“The aid distributions to quake victims were uneven. Some families spent the night outside without any tents in freezing temperatures. Those who don’t have tents slept among the dead bodies to keep them warm,” he said in an interview.
“My relatives haven’t received any aid yet. People are saying aid supplies have arrived, but there is a problem with the distribution—the most aggressive people grabbed more tents and officials took possession of them, while weaker residents such as women and children got nothing.”
“It’s total chaos … and those who grabbed more tents and supplies are reselling at higher prices,” he said.
“Lots of the tents are also occupied by troops and relief workers. Not all victims who are in need of tents and food supplies have received sufficient aid.”
President Hu Jintao cut short a state visit to Brazil to fly home and supervise relief efforts, while Prime Minister Wen Jiabao postponed his own planned visit to Indonesia and came to the quake site, promising that China’s Han majority would do anything possible to aid the Tibetans.
Chinese television is bringing the relatively remote disaster zone area into living rooms across the country, with stories of heroic rescues and military convoys bringing relief supplies to survivors.
A local monk said some 300 people injured in the temblor were receiving treatment in Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan province.
A Tibetan university student from Chengdu, who is helping with first aid and translation, said three Chengdu hospitals were admitting quake victims.
“The victims include children, those with head injuries, broken legs and hands, broken backs … It appears that the Chinese are paying for their health care," he said.
Tibetan university students and teachers in Chengdu are extending help for the victims, the student said.
A team of relief workers from Kardze monastery has meanwhile left for the stricken area, one monastic relief worker said.
“The Rinpoche donated 20,000 Chinese yuan, Kardze monastery donated 80,000 yuan, and the monks of [other] monasteries collected 30,000 yuan,” he said.
“Our monastery has organized mass prayers for the victims since the beginning of the disaster.”
Another Tibetan source, who also asked not to be named, said Tibetans continue to distrust Chinese aid efforts and are sending in their own teams—including monks—to help.
Bodies in the river
Authorities also are concerned about other things, such as providing clean drinking water and proper disposal of waste and hazardous materials.
“Dead bodies were thrown into Drichu river as well as cremated,” another Gyegu resident said.
“The earthquake specialists and sniffer dogs who arrived face altitude sickness, and that has hampered rescue efforts.”
At a news conference in Beijing Saturday, Assistant Minister for Transportation Gao Hongfeng said rescue workers face tough conditions such as altitude sickness, bad weather, and poor living standards.
The Tibet government-in-exile says Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama would like to visit the areas hit by the quake, since most of the residents are ethnic Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in his homeland. Talks between his representatives and Chinese authorities on Tibet's status have yielded no results.
China’s official media are reporting that the young man Beijing has designated to be the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest-ranking religious figure, has donated nearly U.S. $15,000 (100,000 yuan) to quake relief efforts.
In 1995, the Chinese Communist government rejected the boy the Dalai Lama had selected as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, and instead installed its own candidate.
Original reporting by RFA’s Kham service. Translated from Kham by Dorjee Damdul. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo.