Before she set off on the mountain path for school last Monday, Wang Xiaorong’s nine-year-old daughter gave her mum a farewell that was even more affectionate than usual.
“She kissed me again and again,” Wang recalled. “She said she had a secret to tell me. She ran back and hugged me and then she left.”
It was an unusual show of warmth even for Liu Xinqi, who was as popular among her teachers as her classmates in Beichuan elementary school.
But she had a special relationship with her mum. Even though Mother’s Day is not a Chinese tradition, Xinqi had celebrated the occasion the previous morning by giving Wang a handmade pink star.
That gift is now buried, along with the secret that the young girl did not live long enough to reveal. Xinqi was swallowed by the mountain when Sichuan Province was hit by the earthquake. She is one of an tens of thousands of fatalities from the 7.9 magnitude quake, which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) called the most destructive in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Slopes were sliced off mountains, slipping down on to villages, towns and factories in the valleys. Four million homes were buried or shaken to the ground, along with hospitals and schools — especially schools.
Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. Astonishingly, a handful are still alive, but the main job for emergency workers, the army and morticians has been to bury the dead.
Supporting the living will be the long-term challenge for China. Many of the survivors have lost everything: families, homes and businesses. Others, like Wang, are so traumatized that they are unable to eat, drink or sleep.
Spend a day at the Mianyang municipal gymnasium and it is not difficult to understand why. This is the biggest earthquake refugee camp. It is filled with more than 10,000 homeless survivors and countless tales of tragedy, luck, horror and heroism.
The camp’s growth reflects the spread of the emergency services’ reach. Wang came in the initial wave last Tuesday, rescued by the first troops to reach her devastated home in Beichuan. Since then, it has grown larger as rescue teams pushed deeper into more remote regions.
The gymnasium is overflowing. The youngest children are kept in isolation inside so they can be protected in the event of disease. The floors of the stairways and corridors outside are strewn with blankets, sleeping bags, quilts and people. Makeshift bivouacs have been thrown up under trees. The grounds are filled with green and blue tents.
Wang takes me around. We pass countless people in visible pain. Some sob quietly by themselves, one or two howl. The injured hobble or grimace with aching wounds. Some show them off. Others turn aside because they do not want their puffy, purple, bruised faces to be photographed.
There is a gallows humor to the situation. Two middle-aged women with shockingly swollen faces are living in the gym’s former boxing ring. When they peer out from the ropes, they look like badly beaten pugilists. One middle-aged man says he is glad he has lost his appetite because he doesn’t want to go to toilets shared by thousands.
“It is disgustingly dirty. I don’t want to infect my wounds,” he said.
Like many of the camp residents, he bears fresh scars from where he was hit by falling debris.
The bigger scars of the quake may be psychological. With little to do, many residents spend hours in front of televisions watching the latest satellite images of their broken homes and the search for survivors. Most stare vacantly. Anguish is written on other faces. Even in the middle of the night, there are crowds in front of the screens because many people here cannot sleep properly. Those that do have nightmares. At 3am on Friday, a single yell by someone in their sleep prompted hundreds of people to rush out of the building, screaming in fear of another earthquake. It was several minutes before they realized it was a false alarm and filed back inside