Sichuan earthquake. Hongbaizhen. One year later.

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. 2009 

I have just spent two days in the earthquake zone. I went there with a small group of volunteers from around China who dropped everything when the earthquake occurred, and went into the zone. Ordinary people: office-workers from Chongqing and Shanghai, off-duty policemen from Guiyang and Xi’an, a businessman from Wuhan, a housewife from somewhere, and so on. This time they were returning for the anniversary of the disaster. 5:12, May 12, 2009.


Sichuan earthquake. Hongbaizhen. One year later


These people are China’s yingxiong: i.e., Heroes. A year ago, after waiting for the road to be cleared, they walked into the village of Hongbai and were confronted by an horrific scene: bodies lined along the road outside destroyed buildings. A collapsed school with hundreds of students buried under the rubble. An adjacent teachers quarters with more of the same. Buried teachers this time.

So they just got to work. They slept on the ground, in a tent, and lived on packaged noodles. They added some potatoes which were accidentally discovered in the earth under their tent, and they survived on this basic fare for 10 days without complaint.

The ladies with them did what they could to support the men who were called upon to the dirty work: And the dirty work consisted of collecting the bodies, looking for ID, placing them in plastic body-bags, then burying them in mass graves.

What else can I say. I am sure that you can imagine what this task was like. If you could see the graves today, it would break your heart. Too many of them. Particularly the separate sections for the children who were crushed to death by a collapsing school, an imploding dwelling, or killed by some other unexpected horror.

Observe the remains of incense burned in grief to help the soul of the little ones on their journey to the afterlife. Notice old school text-books, pretty coloured school-bags, and photos of the beloved child attached to a crude concrete tombstone. Empathise with the mothers whose grief is imprinted forever in their broken hearts. Admire their Brave countenances though, and how they try to get on with life as best they can. Hiding their burden of pain and loss.

I talk to the Mayor in the middle of a dusty street, surrounded by the activity and noise of reconstruction.

“How are the people coping with this trauma?

“They don’t need to be reminded. They are resilient.”

“What happens to the people who cannot cope, and who break down psychologically?”

“We send them somewhere to be taken care of.”

Yes, he is a busy man, charged with the responsibility of reconstructing a destroyed community way up there in a hidden valley on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in West Sichuan. He and his staff have no knowledge or understanding of the psychological time-bomb they are sitting on.

But it was not the time or place to stand there arguing the point with him. The Chinese government is doing a wonderful job of reconstruction. In the near future the people will be out of the camps and into new homes: earthquake-proof dwellings which have been provided by the authorities and which will help this traumatised little community to reconstruct lives as well as a village.

I walked around the area and looked into the faces of these walking wounded survivors. I can see what the mayor can't see.

Bereaved family members standing where a school building used to be

Yingxiong – Heros

Yingxiong – Heros

Yingxiong – Heros

Hongbai Zhen. Talking to the Mayor.



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