A lost opportunity to break down barriers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am

I arrived in Jiegu at 3am on April 17 after a bumpy 15-hour drive from Xining, at times stuck in traffic despite the late hour because of the heavy flow of trucks carrying relief goods.

As dawn broke, the town quickly became a hectic assembly of vehicles, crimson-robed monks, rescue workers in orange jumpers, soldiers in green uniforms, quake survivors looking for food, water, and tents - as well as stray dogs, goats and even cows. The scene was bathed in a yellow hue; , spring in this region means strong winds, and the whipping up of loose earth that layers the town in a dust cloud was made worse by the earthquake that had struck three days earlier.

Ferocious Tibetan mastiffs jumping out from nowhere, unreliable internet and mobile phone signals, and the lack of hot water and sanitation were just some of the challenges facing outsiders like myself, as well as locals. Altitude sickness was a problem for many too.

I had reported on the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, but this disaster was quite different.

To start with the mood in Jiegu was not the same. The sadness and sense of loss in Sichuan had been overwhelming: parents wailing, the unforgiving rain, blood draining from the rows of children's bodies. But here the sadness was more subdued, the mood more calm. The bodies, once they were pulled out of the rubble, were mostly wrapped head to toe in blankets once monks had offered a quick prayer. There were fewer emotional scenes, and more a sense of sorrow hanging in the air.

Tibetan Buddhist monks were everywhere, digging for bodies, praying, distributing relief goods.

Thousands of monks from outside Jiegu had travelled to the town on their own initiative to help. There was a surprising degree of collaboration between different branches of Tibetan Buddhism, although collaboration between local monasteries and monks from outside Jiegu seemed limited.

As the tempo of the rescue work slowed, tensions began to surface: the old and the weak tussled with strong, young Tibetan men when it came to the distribution of relief goods; Han survivors complained that Tibetan volunteers refused to hand them relief goods upon seeing their faces.

And after days of allowing the monks to do their own thing, the pervading lack of trust between monks and the authorities resurfaced. Monks from outside Jiegu were asked to leave the town on the sixth day - because, the government said, more space was needed to accommodate survivors. Angwen Danbarenqing, the 28-year-old living Buddha of Jiegu Monastery, the biggest in the area, also became less outspoken.

On April 17 he announced that at least 2,110 bodies had been cremated that day, when the official death toll at the time was only 1,484. Three days later he declined to give me an update on the number of bodies cremated. Some monks said they were upset to see soldiers and government workers who seemed more interested in grandstanding than in doing real work. National and Communist Party flags were everywhere, as well as camera crews following the soldiers and government rescue workers.

There were many instances where government rescue workers snatched bodies away immediately after the monks had dug them out, these monks said.

'[Government rescue workers] were only digging in places where people could see them, and not in areas further away from town,' said one monk named Xiran, whose home is in Jiegu. 'My family told me sometimes they just showed up, put a flag down, took a photo and left.'

From soldiers came laments to the local media, however, that it was the first time they had had to work with monks in a rescue effort and that it took time to get used to this new relationship.

There was a sense of an opportunity lost in the conflicting comments. The Yushu earthquake could have presented a great chance for the local government and the monks to build bridges after the Tibetan riots of 2008. However, senior monks from at least two of 10 monasteries from across the ethnic Tibetan region who were in Jiegu in the first few days after the quake felt their contribution was not appreciated.

On this note I saw at least one photo of the Dalai Lama in the rubble, and another in a relief tent I visited. A monk explained to me why he still hung the photo of the Dalai Lama in his home in breach of the law.

'My relationship with the Dalai Lama is my relationship with the Dalai Lama. My relationship with the government is my relationship with the government. The relationship between the government and the Dalai Lama is their relationship,' he said.

As for the young herder family that hung the religious leader's photo in their tent, the mother just shrugged and chuckled when I asked her why she did so.

To these two believers at least, politics and religion were quite separate matters, it appeared.

The government announced on Friday that it planned to rebuild Yushu within five years and to make it an exemplary city of ecotourism.

Compared with other Tibetan counties, Yushu is relatively well off. Many of its residents make money by growing the prized medicinal herb Cordyceps sinensis, known as caterpillar fungus, and raising Tibetan mastiffs - a dog breed trendy among the mainland's nouveaux riches, who can pay hundreds of thousands of yuan for one.

But from what I saw the physical environment of Yushu may present those charged with the reconstruction with greater challenges than they faced in Sichuan.

For one thing most homes are built with earth and there is not even a brick factory in the area. And access to Jiegu is by a road which is under more or less constant repair. It is made treacherous by permafrost, and the unusually high traffic flow since the quake has added to the danger by creating potholes and cracks.

The availability of fresh water and electricity was unreliable to start with and the quake has made things worse. One resident said power failures were common before the quake and that many villages had no electricity at all.

Arguably an even greater challenge will be overcoming the layers of tensions in Yushu. It is true that visits by both Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao in the wake of the disaster went some way to impressing some of the Tibetans who make up the overwhelming majority of Yushu's population. But making better use of the religious institutions in reconstruction efforts will do a lot more to bring a restless region into Beijing's fold.

The monks command respect amongst the people in Yushu. Involving them more in rescue efforts would have impressed the Tibetans. Unfortunately that was a chance not fully taken.