Survivors glimpse a less sombre future
Ng Tze-wei in Yushu
Four days after last year's earthquake, Yixi Dawa, 37, roamed around Zhaxi Datong, one of the worst-hit areas in Yushu, to see if there was anything he could do to help other quake survivors, be it clearing rubble or delivering relief goods.
He had just lost his wife and six-year-old daughter, and his mind was a blank, like a body walking around without a soul. 'At the time I really didn't want to live. They were like my heart and my eyes,' Yixi said this week, eyes still reddened, one year after the 7.1-magnitude quake that shattered Yushu and snatched six family members away from him.
His younger brother and work partner Jiangyong Luozhou, 30, also died in the quake. The two were recognised painters of Tangka - traditional Tibetan paintings - following a generations-old family tradition, and they ran a shop together in the town of Jiegu. Jiangyong became a monk when eight but later left the monastery and became a full-time painter.
'He was the most capable of our family. He excelled in everything: the Tibetan language, painting, music. He even learned Putonghua himself,' their sister, Zhaxi Cairen, said. 'He started this online website for our Tangkas, which must have stopped working now since there's no one to maintain it.'
Zhaxi, 33, lost her husband, as well as two children, aged six and five. She was buried under their collapsed home with them, but was the only one rescued in time. She now works as a cleaner but mostly stays at home.
'She seems to be doing fine living with the rest of us now. But when the town is rebuilt and she moves back into her own place, I think she will find it very difficult to cope,' Yixi said.
Yixi, Zhaxi, their mother Layang, Yongche, 68, another sister, Cicheng Zhuoma, 29, and Yixi's surviving daughter, three-year-old Suoang Baji, have been sharing two tents in one of the main settlement areas, Jiegu's former racecourse, since the quake.
'We can only stay together now and console each other,' said soft-spoken Cicheng, the youngest of the siblings and best educated. At the time of the quake she was staying in the staff quarters of the orphanage where she taught, and she remembers every moment like yesterday.
'I immediately ran home from the orphanage, and all the time I was worried about my mother, since she couldn't walk very well,' Cicheng said, tears in her eyes. 'But who would have thought my brother would be the one who's dead?'
When she got home, Yixi was already there, having run all the way from his workplace, without shoes, unaware his feet were bleeding, focused on digging his family out.
When it became clear to them that Jiangyong was dead, their mother was fine, and nothing more could be done, Yixi immediately ran back to his own home, where he discovered that his wife and elder daughter were dead. At the same time Cicheng ran to Zhaxi's place, finding Zhaxi slightly injured and the rest of the family dead from suffocation.
'It was too late when I got there with other family members,' Cicheng said, frowning with regret. 'Of course, my immediate thought was to go to mother. But I couldn't help think: if only we could have got to them earlier.'
Normally when a member of a Tibetan family dies, they are placed in their own bed and a living Buddha is invited to the home to carry out a prayer ceremony. However, on April 14 last year, they could not find any living Buddha or monks to come; too many people had died, and most monks were busy in the rescue effort.
'We were told to bring the bodies to the monastery, where they were carrying out a mass ceremony for all the dead,' Cicheng said, so they wrapped the bodies in bed sheets, like everyone else, and took them to Jiegu monastery in the afternoon.
On Thursday night last week, the first anniversary of the quake, Yixi and Cicheng joined hundreds of other Yushu residents to light butter-oil lamps for their departed loved ones at the hilly sky burial ground at Zhaxi Datong, where Jiegu's dead are usually buried and where a mass cremation was carried out last year on the third day after the quake.
Standing mid-hill and looking down at the two long trenches dug to collect the ashes of the cremated, Cicheng calmly said: 'This was where we stood that day. We could recognise the bodies even from here, because of the marks we put on the bed sheet. Only the monks were allowed to handle the bodies. But we could still recognise them from here.'
She said she especially missed her brother. 'Before the death of my father, the three of us, Jiangyong, me and my mother, had been supporting each other,' Cicheng said. 'Everyone said we looked so alike; except that he was better-looking,' she added with a bitter smile.
'I even talked to him at around 5.30 that morning when there was a smaller quake. He told me mother was fine and the house was fine. And that was our last phone call.'
Cicheng was the only one in the family to go to school. She studied well and could have gone to university but her father died the year she graduated from junior high. Her mother said they would sell their house so she could go on to senior high, but Cicheng said no. She chose to go to a technological institute so she could start work sooner.
'I really wanted to go to university, but I couldn't let my family suffer for me,' Cicheng said. Since the quake she has been working double shifts - as a substitute teacher at a primary school during the day, and her old job at the orphanage at night. She makes about 1,000 yuan (HK$1,188) a month, and often has to cook when she gets home after 9pm.
'What to do? There is little income in the family now,' she said. 'We don't even know yet whether we are going to be allocated one of those free houses the government promised. Everything is uncertain.'
Yixi has also resumed his part-time job running errands and chauffeuring, making about 600 yuan a month. 'I started painting when I was eight. But I have stopped since the quake,' Yixi said. 'I just couldn't collect my thoughts to paint.'
Cicheng still worries about her mother, who has become quiet since the quake. Yixi still struggles with memories from the old days and avoids driving along the road where his home used to be. And the family still burn butter-oil lamps for the six who are no longer around, wishing them the best in their next lives.
Cicheng is going to be married in September, and her future husband has already agreed to come and live with her and her mother.
Meanwhile, Suoang is the brightest light in Yixi's life. She utters only a few words but is active like a boy. Yixi plays with her, feeds her, helps her change and soothes her when she cries as gently as any mother would.
'I already lost my big baby. I'm going to give this little one everything I have,' Yixi said, rocking her on his lap. He's planning on sending her to a kindergarten later this year, which costs up to 360 yuan a month.
Shortly after the quake, Yixi met a medical volunteer, Sangyang, who has been very kind to the family. The two are dating now, although Yixi is worried that Sangyang's parents will be unhappy that he is a widower.
Yixi plans to return to painting soon. 'I have a wish,' he said. 'When my own life gets better, I want to start a Tangka school. I want to train children who are poor or orphans as apprentices, so they can make a living as well as continue this tradition.'