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Earthquake in Sichuan, China: the aftermath

By Brian Hennessy - posted Thursday, 5 February 2009


Nothing prepares you for the desolation of a city recovering from an earthquake. It's not the physical destruction that is so difficult to confront, although that is bad enough. Rather, it's the people. Traumatised people. I'm a psychologist who specialises in this area. I know about these things.

The International Women's Group (IWG) in Chongqing has been supporting children in a village school in An Xian County near the devastated city of Mianyang where tens of thousands died. The village is named Fei Shui, and is located between Mianyang and the mountains. The mountains which moved as the Indian tectonic plate pushed further into China.

I travelled with the IWG to see the results of their practical charity towards the bereaved and traumatised children and teachers of the school in Fei Shui. Or what used to be the Fei Shui school. That's gone.

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In its place are blue and white temporary demountables, the type which are clustered across the landscape of the earthquake zone, housing survivors in isolated camps on flat ground adjacent to the mountains. Refugees from nature herself.

This is the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The roof of the world which suddenly collapsed and shifted east at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008, crushing all those people in isolated farmhouses; in whole villages such as Fei Shui; provincial towns such as An; and large cities such as Mianyang.

Humble brick, mud, and stone dwellings; larger concrete apartment blocks; and of course, the now famous tofu schools. Cleared away from sight now, but not from memories. The saddest reminder of what might have been prevented had those responsible for their communities not had their hands in the till.

We pass hurriedly through Mianyang and out into the countryside between this shocked city and the edge of the Plateau. Here and there orange gashes scar the green face of this mobile monolith where cliff-faces have slid, slipped, and tumbled to the countryside below. Stark, ugly wounds of nature.

In Beichuan, the epicentre of the earthquake, most of the buildings were still standing after the initial shock. This apparent mercy had allowed the population of this isolated valley town to evacuate their homes and public buildings safely.

They were standing around thanking their lucky stars when a mountain collapsed into the valley and buried everyone. Just like that. Ten thousand residents dead and buried in seconds. The community of Beichuan has been wiped off the face of the earth.

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Nobody speaks as we drive through the devestation along the base of the Plateau. What could you say anyway?

Reconstruction is already underway. Piles of new bricks line the sides of the road and rubble is being removed. Everyone is doing something. Getting another dwelling ready before winter arrives is the priority.

It's a different scene in the camps though. It's cold already in these places, the thin metal walls seem to keep the inside cold rather than add to the comfort of the residents. Mei guanxi, no matter, at least they keep the rain out. And perhaps it will feel warmer inside when winter is at its worst.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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