Tent towns house China's earthquake refugees

  • World
  • Tuesday, 20 May 2008

MYT 6:16:57 AM

PINGTONG, China (Reuters) - When the earthquake came to Pingtong it destroyed all but four buildings in this town, once home to 9,700 people.

Survivors observe a three minute moment of silence at 2.28pm, exactly one week when an earthquake hit the town of Pingtong, in Pingwu county, Sichuan province, May 19, 2008. When the earthquake came to Pingtong it destroyed all but four buildings in this town, once home to 9,700 people. (REUTERS/Nicky Loh)

A week later the survivors are refugees in the ruins, situated in a gorge directly above the fault-line that delivered a 7.9 magnitude blow to Sichuan province on May 12.

The town lost 111 middle-school school students and 47 grammar school students. Every adult can give the exact count of the children lost and saved, although they are vague on the total number of deaths, estimated at about 500.

Despite grief and exhaustion, local officials were still proud to show off the new Pingtong, a testament to the efficiency of China's relief effort.

Green tents in an open field were labelled "Pingtong People's Government," "Health Department", "Clinic", and "Security." Doctors waited and night watchmen patrolled.

Supply trucks came and went constantly in front of the two large tents that serve as a depot for food distribution.

In the orchard behind, two hundred blue tents connected by tidy brick walkways housed 12 people each. Scavenged furniture is set up in shaded yards, where the townspeople sit and wait. Many looked close to tears.

"One family, one tent. But some families are missing children or parents, so we might put them together," said He Lin, a policeman.

"A lot of families are incomplete."


After five days with few meals and rationed water, the Pingtong canteen opened this weekend in time for a visit by vice premier Li Keqiang.

More importantly, a mostly-open road means trucks can come through, with food and water for Pingtong and remoter villages.

The depot issued 40 tonnes of rice and 50 tonnes of flour in the last few days, said Wu Zhihui, a representative of the local People's Congress. He proudly pointed out stacks of bottled water, dry biscuits, huge zucchini and limp cauliflower.

"In a way, this is the perfect world. Everyone gets what they need, for free, and everyone helps everyone else," said a young man who introduced himself as a volunteer assigned by the county-level Communist Party to work as an auditor.

"That's because Chinese are warmhearted and put their nation ahead of the individual, not the other way around the way people put themselves first in Western countries."

The auditor excused himself to check an outgoing shipment, explaining his job was important because some people might be tempted to try to get more than their fair share.

Representatives of surrounding villages and isolated farmsteads come once every three days, to collect their allocation and trek it back over the mountains.

Most can only take the bare minimum in their baskets, but motorcycles can bring slightly heavier loads where the roads still exist. The Pingtong officials in their neat tents worried about the neighbouring township, with twice the population, worse damage and no road for the heavy trucks to bring in aid.

No-one has any idea how long this orderly tent city can last, or what the government's plan is for rebuilding the town.

Only the policeman He Lin has a vision.

"They should do a study on whether it's a good idea to have a town this big on a fault line. They should restore just the farmhouses, because this valley is perfect for tea and orchards, and it's so pretty they could develop it for tourists. That way, not so many people would live here and it would be safer."


Sichuan wants to keep its millions of internal refugees at home instead of flooding the cities, but many of Pingtong's residents have little to stay for.

A member of the army search team pointed out the rubble that was the town schools. The empty middle school dormitory was almost untouched by the earthquake, but the classrooms and primary school were gone along with everything else.

Some people with blank stares crouched by the rubble of the schools, keeping vigil over the bodies not yet found.

"We pulled out lots of victims and cared for them, but we were totally cut off. No road, no electricity, no blood for them, the hospital collapsed and the doctor was injured," Wu said.

"We couldn't keep them alive for more than eight or ten hours. In the end, we didn't manage to rescue anybody."

An aftershock rippled through the camp, launching a landslide down the steep, scarred slope facing Pingtong. A village party secretary looked up from counting boxes.

"Don't be afraid. We hardly even notice."

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