Hope flourishes among the despair of Sichuan quake five years on

A return to the epicentre of the 2008 disaster brings an emotional reunion and mixed feelings for a journalist who was among the first outsiders to reach flattened Yingxiu as it mourned its lost children

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:36pm

Five years after a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province, killing more than 86,000 people, the town at its epicentre, Yingxiu, is full of new, low-rise buildings.

They stand in stark contrast to the ruins immediately after the quake and the hundreds of temporary, single-storey houses that sprang up in the year that followed.

If not for the remains of the toppled Xuankou Middle School, left undisturbed since rescue work was completed, the town would look the same as thousands of others across the mainland.

After walking 40 kilometres through the mountains and along damaged roads five years ago, I was one of the first reporters to reach Yingxiu after the quake. The journey from Dujiangyan to Yingxiu took almost 20 hours, with parts of the road cracked wide open or blocked by piles of mud and boulders the size of trucks.

Today, you can make the same journey in a car in less than an hour.

I set off by myself from the centre of Dujiangyan on the afternoon of May 14, walking against an endless stream of injured quake victims and making friends with a handful of people going in the same direction. They included locals worried that relatives might have been buried by massive mudslides and volunteers from hundreds of kilometres away carrying food and bottled water.

We trekked along the narrow, winding road, with the Min River on our right, groups of young People's Liberation Army soldiers carrying spades and shovels occasionally overtaking us.

On some sections, blocked by tonnes of rock, sand and mud, we had to crawl to make any progress, with soldiers sometimes lending a hand to drag or push us. Occasionally we had to forge a new path through the mountains, with rocks cascading around us whenever there was an aftershock.

When night came, the moonlight was so bright and clear it illuminated our way without the need for torches, but it was freezing cold on the mountain when we took a nap a few hours before dawn.

I reached the centre of Yingxiu about 9.30am on May 15 and a couple of hours later saw 11-year-old Zhang Chunmei pulled from the rubble of the collapsed four-storey Yingxiu Primary School.

My heart broke when I saw that both her legs were badly damaged - particularly when she asked me in a weak voice: "Uncle Choi, could you please tell me if the earthquake is a real one?"

She was too shocked to come to terms with the devastation that had claimed the lives of most of her best friends and schoolmates. The headmaster told me nearly 200 children had died when the school building collapsed.

Chunmei was airlifted to a hospital in Chengdu , the provincial capital, where both her legs were amputated above the knee. I can still remember the warmth of her body, partly wrapped in bandages, when I gave her a hug in the hospital.

In the years since, she has become a friend. I once missed a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong because I was busy sending Chunmei a postcard from a post office at the airport.

Last month, when I met Chunmei in Chengdu once again, she was a confident 16-year-old, determined to become a successful disabled swimmer.

She said she had succeeded in travelling home to Yingxiu from her school in Dujiangyan on her own and had won a few medals in swimming competitions. I breathed a sigh of relief when I hugged her once again.

Many other children in the quake zone died or were crippled when school buildings collapsed in the quake, with some people blaming corrupt local officials for their substandard construction.

To be honest, it is hard to say whether the Yingxiu Primary School was shoddily built because almost all the buildings in the town, both government and private, had already been reduced to rubble by the time I reached the centre of town five years ago.

However, the main building of the Xiange Middle School, on the outskirts of Dujiangyan, was almost certainly what's called a "tofu" building.

When I reached the scene at noon on May 13, I was told that nearly 400 children had been buried under a huge pile of dark-grey debris. Dozens, if not hundreds, of mothers and fathers waited in silence in a chilling drizzle for an unlikely miracle, hoping their only child would eventually be rescued.

In the hour that I watched, no miracles occurred, with People's Armed Police members pulling lifeless body after lifeless body from the wreckage.

Some parents expressed their anger at the shoddy construction of the school building. Nearby buildings including a multi-storey bank and government offices survived with just a few cracks, while the school was flattened like a pancake.

The reality on the ground was far different from the picture painted by Sichuan deputy governor Wei Hong a year after the quake. He said its massive strength, rather than slipshod construction, was to blame for the collapse of so many school buildings.

To the surprise of many China-watchers, Wei was promoted to provincial governor this year despite being one of the few officials to obliquely deny the existence of tofu school buildings in the quake-hit area.

Half a decade on, a lot has changed in the area hit by the quake, with the previously rough and bumpy road connecting Dujiangyan and Xiange rebuilt and covered with tarmac, making fact-finding visits by top leaders easier. And, with the help of the local authorities, many women who lost children in the quake have given birth to another child or two.

But parents fighting for justice for their only children, killed in collapsed school buildings, are still being persecuted for trying to hold allegedly corrupt local officials to account.