Flurry of inaction in place where heaven fell

John Garnaut
May 16, 2008
 

FROM a distance, Beichuan looks like a town of Lego bricks that some child has kicked over in rage. The remaining buildings stand at strange angles and all sense of proportion is distorted by the huge mountains that wedge it in on every side.

But after walking and stumbling down a few hundred metres of landslide, where the road used to be, the reality in close-up is unspeakable.

There are no roads or clear spaces any more, only mangled mess. At first I carefully watch my footfall, because there is no clear or stable ground.

I soon learn to watch for bodies. Some are well dressed and beautiful. Most faces are still recognisable, but they may not remain that way long enough for relatives to claim them.

Others are twisted in cars and crushed like insects under rocks. Headless, disembowelled, grotesquely broken.

At a village on the way a peasant had said this had not been a natural disaster but a "catastrophe from heaven".

I understand that now. Heaven itself has collapsed.

Villagers had mostly been lucky because they were out working the fields on Monday afternoon when the earthquake struck. But city dwellers were at school, at work and in their homes.

In Beichuan, formerly a tightly packed town of well over 20,000 people, anyone agile enough to escape from their collapsing buildings would then have watched whole mountains rumbling down towards them.

Where I am, at least, the tumbling rivers of dirt had stopped at the edge of town. But boulders as big as houses had powered over the main skirting road, crushing cars flat and smashing into the outside row of what might have been shops and apartment blocks.

A volunteer rescuer is shouting into a gap between two car-sized boulders. "You have to Live! Live for your children."

Another volunteer stands at the doorway of a gutted apartment block, which looks dangerously unstable. He gestures behind and says at least 10 people are alive in there. He says the rescuers had told him they were too difficult to reach.

Further on is a lady squatting on top of a concrete pile that used to be a school. Her anguished voice is hoarse from shouting a name: "An Deming, An Deming!"

Relatives pick hopelessly at the mayhem around her and peer through gaps in the concrete for signs of life.

Until now I have been comforted by the public's huge goodwill and the Government's prompt response. But the relief effort seemed to have choked at the place it matters most.

Where are those 130,000 soldiers now? Why are they still squashed into trucks on the clear road above, while volunteers and relatives are mostly barred from doing the work themselves?

#There is a flurry next to me. Someone has heard a voice from the upper stories of a small block of flats. They cry out and a woman answers with a strong voice and a Sichuan accent I can't understand.

I come across a group of soldiers. They say they will come to help the woman but right now they are too busy working out what to do with the school.

By now I have walked and climbed perhaps 200 metres into this living graveyard and it goes on for perhaps three kilometres more. It would take hours to go that far. I have seen enough and turn around.

The volunteer who had been shouting at the two boulders has gone. Underneath those boulders is a protruding leg. From the other side, where the man was shouting, I can make out the body attached to the leg. The torso is hanging upside down, arms dangling into a dark chasm.

I tell the man that if he's brave enough to live the rescue teams will surely come for him. "Thank you," he says. "I feel like I am dead already."

A female arm is also sticking out from this rock, wearing a pretty red bracelet. I wonder if it is his wife and if he knows she's dead.

Perhaps it was cruel of the volunteer to urge him to live for his child, who is no doubt buried here somewhere.

But cruelty has no meaning here.

It is getting dark. It would take a crane to lift those rocks. I scramble back towards the edge of town.

Every 10 minutes or so a team of orange-suited rescuers carries out a stretcher. They are invariably exhausted and pause at the foot of the goat track that has been carved over the landslide that used to be the road. A handkerchief protects the face of a survivor from the sun. A fresh tear trickles out to show she is alive.

I hear from someone's two-way radio that five children have just been rescued. One of them arrives on a stretcher and is lifted into the arms of an orange uniformed man to be cradled up the mountain.

One of his colleagues, Luan Dongmo, says they are carrying more than 10 survivors every hour.

Finally, on the road above there are some more serious signs of action. Lines of soldiers are jogging in the right direction. Huge diggers are carving out an emergency camp and others are moving towards the crushed city.

A black government car is held up on the road by a survivor who is holding a sit-down protest, demanding an immediate lift to the more stable ground at Mianyang. The car happens to be carrying a suited man who his colleagues say is leading the rescue effort.

The rescue leader says he understands my concerns that the rescue is not happening fast enough. The problem, he says, is that there are simply so many soldiers and volunteers here to help that it is impossible for any of them to move. He says "the key" is to create some space for a rescue camp - work that has evidently just begun.

On the way in my taxi had been stopped at a roadblock 15 kilometres away. I had slipped through with a handful of journalists on special instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I had walked and then ridden in on the back of a motorcycle past hundreds of troop carriers, buses, cranes, supply trucks and cars that were double parked and blocking all but one lane of the road.

It was clear that the extraordinary resources thrown at this disaster had reached a bottleneck. What they needed were managers who had been trained to deal with disasters on a scale that China had not experienced in 30 years.

Yesterday morning an aftershock jolted me out of bed. I heard the usual scramble of voices and footsteps heading to safety outside. I knew I should have put on my shoes to join them. But it was hard to think of anything other than what that shock must have felt like to a man hanging upside down in Beichuan.