With pick-axes and spades, six young People's Liberation Army soldiers tore into the reddish-brown earth of northwestern Sichuan Province.
They had arrived in the morning to search for survivors in this remote mountain region, one of the worst-hit areas in Monday’s earthquake. But such was the devastation that they ended up using their shovels more to bury victims than to uncover survivors.
“We got here at nine this morning. Since then we have rescued three people — one child and two adults — and found 40 to 50 dead,” said Guo Pan, a 20-year-old field army private from Guizhou Province, as he dug a small, shallow grave.
“It doesn’t have to be very big,” his unit leader said. “It’s only for a 10-year-old boy.”
The dead child was lowered into the pit, his face covered with a sheet, and then the grave was filled again, marked with a stake and covered with boulders so animals could not dig up the body.
The troops are part of a huge, but largely non-mechanized, relief operation. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, more than 50,000 soldiers have been deployed to the affected areas, where at least 14,866 people have died and thousands are missing.
Many soldiers are equipped with just shovels and pick-axes to dig for victims in collapsed buildings and landslides of thousands of tonnes of earth.
Chinese TV says troops were parachuted into Pingwu and Mao counties, as well as the epicenter in Wenchuan County.
Chenjiaba is similarly remote and devastated. Its main bridge — a huge concrete structure — now lies concertinaed on the riverbed. Stairwells are turned on their sides, the market place is rubble, and the western side of the town is buried under a massive landslide. There is a lifeless body on the street, countless victims buried in the rubble and even a dead pig in a collapsed sty.
There was praise for the soldiers, some of whom reportedly marched for two days to reach the area. All of the dozen or so people that the Guardian spoke to said that, thanks to the army, they had enough to drink and eat.
But even for the world’s biggest army, the devastation was too much. After a couple of hours, troops gave up the search for seven people believed to have been buried in a riverside building, which is now a mangle of concrete, debris, a broken pool table and a child’s cuddly toy.
Yang Taiyin, the husband of one of those missing, could not control his tears.
“The day before the earthquake my wife and I just got back from a holiday in Beijing,” he said, showing a photograph of the couple outside the Great Hall of the People. “If only we had delayed our return by one day, we would have escaped the disaster.”
Among the most pitiful victims was Yang Yan, a 12-year-old boy, who said he had been looking for his family for two days.
“My father, mother and sister are missing,” he said, after crossing the devastated Chenjiaba bridge. “I last saw my father on the morning before the earthquake. He went out to cut vegetables.”
Along several mountains, the terraced slopes where locals used to cultivate crops have been buried in landslides of thousands of tonnes of earth. The green steps have been smoothed flat. Below the surface lie vegetable fields, homes and countless agricultural workers.
Hundreds of soldiers set off in search of victims in remote communities, but the terrain is so vast and so dangerous that many have had to turn back. But a growing stream of refugees is heading down from the hills.