Monday, May 19, 2008

A Former Student of mine writes from Sichuan

From Yanmei Xie

INTO THE MOUNTAINS

It seemed luck was compensating me after a sleepless night stranded in Shanghai. The cab driver who picked me up at the Chengdu Shuangliu Airport told me he had been driving into earthquake stricken towns a lot and that he knew ways to by pass the government's traffic control.

We set off immediately after I dropped off my luggage.

The cabbie's name is Lai Si, and I call him uncle Lai. He told me he had been working as a volunteer, sending rescue supplies to disaster zones and shuttling victims out in the fast few days.

We drove into the mountains. The road became narrower and steeper, some portions partially blocked by boulders or giant piles of mud. The force of the quake had stripped some of the cement surface, pushed some parts up and pressed others down. A four-inch crack split the road in the middle. Uncle Lai deftly navigated on this terrain and tried to stable the vehicle to accommodate my attempt to videotape the scene.

We picked up a villager on our way. A few more miles up in the mountain, he said we had arrived in Hongbai village, or what's left of if—piles of smashed bricks, broken wood columns, pieces of clothes, dangling concrete frames. Abandoned chickens and pigs were roaming in the debris looking for food. For miles and miles, not a single building was standing. The village used to sit in a valley. The villager pointed across the valley and showed us a mountainside covered by a yellow blanket of mud and rocks. "More than a dozen families," the villager said, "were buried by the landslide over there."

Some survivors moved to government supplied tents, but there were not enough for everyone. On the roadside stood a makeshift tent haphazardly cobbled together with wood columns and tarp. A woman stooped outside of the tent, washing some odd pieces of frying pans and bowls. I walked over and said: "Hi, sorry for interrupting." She looked up, eyes swollen, and stared at me blankly.

"Could you, could you tell me what happened?" I stuttered.

"My house was here." She murmured, raised one arm slightly and gestured towards the tent. The gesture seemed to be too much for her. Her arm collapsed into her body, her head dropped, lower than before, and started to scrub a pan again and again. It was too much for me, too. I turned my video camera away and walked back to my car.

Many soldiers and volunteers had arrived. They were busy distributing food and water and spray the debris with disinfectant. No one could tell how many died in the village.

Some told me more than a thousand had perished. One villager said the death toll was much higher than that. All said that the local government tried to understate the casualties to higher ups initially. They believed it delayed rescue and relief for them as attention was turned to other hard-hit counties and villages.

Uncle Lai called me back to the car and told me that we'd better head back before it turned dark. Deeper in the mountains, there are still towns that haven't been heard since the earthquake.

On our way back, a medical team stopped us and sprayed our car and ourselves with disinfectant.

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