Courage amid the rubble: Return to Beichuan

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The deadly quake that hit central China killed half the residents of one town. A year later, Clifford Coonan finds remarkable tales of courage amid the rubble

There is a ghostly quiet in Beichuan, one year on. It is a long walk in to what was once a small town, along cracked sections of road wrecked by last year's 8.0-magnitude quake. The first sight of the carnage is as shocking now as it was then. It still looks as if an angry child has picked up a toy town and dropped it. What is new is that much of the town is gone, covered by floodwater, or heaped in a pile of rubble. Beichuan does not really exist anymore.

Downtown, the flowers are blooming and the yellow privet gives off a strong, sweet fragrance. It's an incongruous scent; the last time I was here, the overpowering stench was of unburied corpses. The flowers are flashes of beauty in a scene of brutal destruction. At certain spots, people have placed burning incense sticks to commemorate their dead. Almost at the epicentre of the quake that ripped the heart out of Sichuan, Beichuan lost half of its population of 26,000 and 70 per cent of its buildings.

Now the remaining houses and apartment blocks lean at crazy angles, as if they are about to topple, and fresh landslides have deposited huge boulders at the town's edge. Inside the destroyed apartments, posters and paintings still hang on the walls. Laundry hangs on the balcony of one flat. A clock is stopped at 2.28, the time the quake struck. But a large section of the town that I visited last year no longer exists.

When the earthquake struck, Beichuan took the full brunt of the powerful tremor. There are thought to be thousands of bodies still buried in the rubble. At the Beichuan Workers' Club, the karaoke lounge has been silent for a year. "Welcome to Kara OK," it says. The Beichuan Hotel will never re-open, and the statues of Tibetan gazelle outside the gates of the hotel stare across at a large expanse of rubble.

On the way here, the towns and villages are packed with signs of solid reconstruction, but also of reminders of how much needs to be done. In Mianyang, the nearest big city where I pick up my press pass required to report from the Beichuan valley, there are exhortations, in true Communist fashion, to roll up sleeves and help: "Reconstruction will take three years, but we will do it in two". "The Great Earthquake spirit will help Mianyang develop quickest and best". "Take the opportunity – spend your weekend rebuilding our home town".

Since the earthquake, there have been thousands of aftershocks and landslides, and the boulders by the roadside and freshly upturned earth on the mountainside show how the quake changed the very landscape itself. At regular intervals you see the blue and white banfang, the board houses that are home to some three million people. Between 3.5 and four million others are still living in tents or makeshift accommodation.

The road winds along the side of the mountain, and the roadside is festooned with more banners: "To the harmonious new Beichuan", "Thank the Communist Party, Thank the Army, Thank the Motherland".

There are many new homes by the roadside, some very pretty. Scaffolding holds up the older ones as strengthening work is done. Occasionally, you see villages still in ruins.

A year ago, the only way in to Beichuan, which was completely cut off by the quake, involved a solemn 3km trek in single file, as we negotiated a steep mountain path, while soldiers came against us in the other direction, carrying injured survivors on stretchers. This time, the approach is from another side, and to get there you still have to walk a steep track, but at least it is paved. You pass through a chain-link fence ringed with barbed wire and a checkpoint of police and soldiers.

Overall, the earthquake left nearly 87,000 people dead or missing, injured 375,000 and left more than five million homeless. Many were children, including those at the Beichuan Middle School in the town; hundreds were buried alive. The Chengdu government gave its first official tally this week, saying the quake left 5,335 students dead or missing. This is a very sensitive figure for parents whose children died and who say that schools were shoddily built, collapsing into dust while adjacent structures stood firm.

Many believe the official death toll figure is way too low: previous estimates put the number at about 10,000, which would be proportionately correct because schoolchildren and students made up about 16 per cent of the population in the quake zone. Also some 14,000 schools were damaged by the earthquake, some of them like the Beichuan Middle School, in hopeless ruins.

The police detained this correspondent this week for trying to report on the parents' demands for an investigation, and other journalists have been roughed up. But the experience of the authorities at Beichuan is completely different. This is not as sensitive politically, it's simply a human tragedy on a grand scale and there are no gruff, black-clad police officers here. This town is a testament to a time when the world shared in China's grief.

Now, the government has decided to abandon Beichuan and rebuild it nearby in a place called Anchang. Here there is a road sign on one side of the road saying "Beichuan", while on the other side it says "Anchang".

A national monument to Beichuan's victims and an earthquake museum will be officially inaugurated at 2.28pm on Tuesday 12 May, the one-year anniversary. In the town, the banner is black, saying, "Show our deepest respect for the victims of the 5.12 earthquake". Delegations of cadres have been arriving to visit the site of the memorial. Volunteers are putting down turf and there is a large black tablet in the street with the date of the quake. The monument stands at the foot of a large landslide.

A year ago, from under piles of rubble like these, I heard cries for help from people who were still alive after days trapped in the debris.

For the time being, Beichuan is more a state of mind than a real place, its residents scattered to villages throughout the area. In one prefab city near Beichuan, former residents seem to be doing well. The atmosphere is cheerful. "After the quake I lived in a tent for four months, then I moved here in August," said Gao Chaoyuan, 39, a former Beichuan resident who is embroidering for her daughter, and sitting outside the restaurant she works in. The restaurant is fully equipped, with roast chickens hanging up in the window.

"I was in the street when the quake struck," said Ms Gao. "I saw the buildings seem to rotate, then they collapsed. Thankfully my family is okay. It's not so bad here. I live over there," she added, pointing at the board house opposite, "and I work here. And there's a primary school, it's very convenient. The winter wasn't as terrible as we expected, the houses have insulation. There's a strong community feeling here," she went on, putting two tin cups of hot water out for the visitors. There is a strong smell of Sichuan hot peppers from the kitchen. "I've no idea what the future holds. We'll just move on. My children will study. I don't know if we'll have a home again. We may just live here."

Some of the residents are doing the same kind of embroidery to earn money, but there is a problem with unemployment. Feng Yan was working in Mianyang but now the 21-year-old is looking for a job. "My house collapsed when I was away working," she said. "My cousin died in the school, though most of us are okay."

In a makeshift market, Xi Zhenwu, 60, says he was at home when the quake started. "I felt the tremor beneath my feet, and I started to run. I was three or four metres from the house when it collapsed. Me and my family were lucky; we all escaped."

Mr Xi wants to rebuild his house in Beichuan county. But not yet. "Since the earthquake, the earth is not strong. When the earth is strong enough we will rebuild."

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