Sichuan earthquake: the aftermath.

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. May, 2009

Nothing prepares you for the desolation of a city recovering from an earthquake. It's not the physical destruction that is so difficult to confront, although that is bad enough. Rather, it's the people. Traumatised people. I'm a psychologist who specialises in this area. I know about these things.

Sichuan earthquake: the aftermath


The International Women's Group (IWG) in Chongqing has been supporting children in a village school in An Xian County near the devastated city of Mianyang where tens of thousands died. The village is named Fei Shui, and is located between Mianyang and the mountains. The mountains which moved as the Indian tectonic plate pushed further into China.

I travelled with the IWG to see the results of their practical charity towards the bereaved and traumatised children and teachers of the school in Fei Shui. Or what used to be the Fei Shui school. That's gone.

In its place are blue and white temporary demountables, the type which are clustered across the landscape of the earthquake zone, housing survivors in isolated camps on flat ground adjacent to the mountains. Refugees from nature herself.

This is the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The roof of the world which suddenly collapsed and shifted east at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008, crushing all those people in isolated farmhouses; in whole villages such as Fei Shui; provincial towns such as An; and large cities such as Mianyang.

Humble brick, mud, and stone dwellings; larger concrete apartment blocks; and of course, the now famous tofu schools. Cleared away from sight now, but not from memories. The saddest reminder of what might have been prevented had those responsible for their communities not had their hands in the till. 

We pass hurriedly through Mianyang and out into the countryside between this shocked city and the edge of the Plateau. Here and there orange gashes scar the green face of this mobile monolith where cliff-faces have slid, slipped, and tumbled to the countryside below. Stark, ugly wounds of nature.

In Beichuan, the epicentre of the earthquake, most of the buildings were still standing after the initial shock. This apparent mercy had allowed the population of this isolated valley town to evacuate their homes and public buildings safely. They were standing around thanking their lucky stars when the mountains collapsed into the valley and buried everyone. Just like that. Ten thousand residents dead and buried in seconds. The community of Beichuan wiped off the face of the earth.

Nobody speaks as we drive through the devastation along the base of the Plateau. What could you say anyway? Resilience: reconstruction is already underway. Piles of new bricks line the sides of the road and rubble is being removed. Everyone is doing something. Getting another dwelling ready before winter arrives is the priority.

It's a different scene in the camps though. It's cold already in these places, the thin metal walls seem to keep the inside cold rather than add to the comfort of the residents. Mei guanxi, no matter, at least they keep the rain out. And perhaps it will feel warmer inside when winter is at its worst.

We arrive at the school late, after travelling most of the day from Chongqing, 350km away. The IWG has arranged for a Beijing-based theatre group to encourage the children to express their feelings via activities and drama. A good idea. Possibly the best way to help them.

This group of foreign ladies from Chongqing has also provided desks and chairs for the children, who prior to this, were sitting and doing their schoolwork on the cold concrete floor. God knows how they have managed to keep their collective act together, given the grief and loss that they have endured. Teachers included.

It's a struggle. These survivors are at the beginning stages of recovery. Until now, their efforts have been directed towards meeting their material needs ahead of the coming winter. Soon, whether they like it or not, they will also be forced to deal with the psychological consequences of their traumatic experience. This will be hard.

In a poor county, in a rural district, in a nation which is struggling to provide affordable, basic medical services to its population, long term mental health care is an impossibility. These people will just have to manage as best they can.

School Principal





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