Nine years on and China’s Sichuan Province is still dealing with the haunting memories of the 2008 earthquake that claimed 90,000 lives and completely destroyed many buildings. Staff Writer MPHO MOKWAPE* joined others in a recent trip to pay homage to the victims and survivors of the world’s 21st deadliest quake of all time
Natural disasters often claim thousands of lives and leave those behind with haunting and painful memories for decades. For the people around the mountainous region of Sichuan Province in southwestern China, the memories are still fresh as they live daily with the reminders of May 12, 2008 when a massive earthquake razed nearly everything to the ground.
Just recently Botswana felt the power of earthquakes when the aftershock of a South African quake rocked the south, before a monster 6.5 scale quake in the Central District shook the entire country and region.
Had it been shallower, the recent Moiyabana quake was sure to have caused untold casualties and damage. Travelling to the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake in China provides clarity on how Batswana were very fortunate to have escaped unhurt in the recent quake.
The people of Yingxiu town on the southeast coast of Wenchuan county were not so lucky as the earthquake, now often referred to as the ‘Wenchuan Earthquake’, resulted in a large number of casualties and a near-impossible rescue mission for responders.
The area is now a tourist attraction destination and villagers admit that the years since 2008 have been very difficult since the magnitude 8.0 quake flattened the area. A tour around the town shows beautiful scenery as Yingxiu is surrounded by high rising mountains and lush vegetation.
Locals here, who are mostly of Tibetan origin, are friendly and from the surface, one would not believe as many as 90,000 of them lost their lives in the quake, or that the town was once in ruins. Today, buildings are up and there are no signs of any cracks. The streets in the town are as busy as ever with hawkers chanting slogans to attract customers to buy their produce, mostly cherries. Our group of 27 African journalists is met with many quizzical stares from the locals, but the villagers prepare to take us down memory lane and share beautiful stories of the Tibetan people.
After the quake, everything had to be built from scratch as the entire town completely collapsed from the earthquake and the aftershocks.The tour is all fun and games with snapping of pictures until the visit takes a turn into the village, to the epicentre of the quake where a middle school collapsed and killed many students. The area here has been left as is, to serve as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake. The scene of utter devastation and ruin, together with the thought of students shocked and screaming for dear life is too much to bear. Apocalypse could best describe the scene.
For tour guide and interpreter, Huang Wen the moment is like scratching and disturbing an old wound all over again. The journey is highly emotional for him as he attempts to take us through what transpired on that fateful day in May. His interpretation of the events is often interrupted to give him short breaks to compose himself and control his overflowing tears.
Huang recalls that it took the rescue team several hours to get through to people trapped under collapsed buildings due to the mountains of rubble and unstable ground. More lives were lost as rescuers tried and failed to access survivors. “This town and its people will always serve as a reminder that despite the tragedies of life and darkness, there
We rely on each other for survival and everyone is doing their bit to survive independently as opposed to relying heavily on the Government,” he notes. While a major loss is emotionally painful, for the Tibetan people of Yingxiu town, it was crucial for them to learn how to work through such losses and pain in order for them to emerge as victors and not give into the disaster.
The town was reconstructed on its original site and as the epicentre of the earthquake attracts worldwide attention, safety was given a high priority. All houses and infrastructure are said to have been shifted between 200 and 300 metres away from the fault zone and all are made of framework, steel frames, wood, light steel structure and designs to prevent damage from even a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.
“As hard as it is, the people have moved on. They have hope and now the town enjoys rich vegetation and is thriving in trade. The people live harmoniously together as they try to forget the haunting memories of the past,” Huang says. According to the villagers, besides the thriving trade they now rely heavily on the town’s advantageous tourism resources following the earthquake as thousands of people each year visit the town, especially the memorial site and the memorial hall located on the outskirts of town.
Huang says the memorial hall was built after the earthquake and serves as a memorial for those who lost their lives or were presumed dead after the disaster. A tour around the hall is nothing short of a reflection of the devastating effects of the disaster and the aftermath. Pictures of collapsed buildings, people crying for help and rescue workers adorn the hall with marks to show those that did not make it out alive after the earthquake and during the rescue mission.
One picture hanging on the wall is of a wrecked military helicopter and it catches our attention. The chopper was part of the rescue team and it crashed with 18 souls aboard.
“The aircraft was on its way to bring more help to the town, but due to the unstable environment it crashed on the mountain raising the number of deaths following the disaster. It was a hard time to lose more people while trying to bring more help. “It was a dark time for the people of China and it was a defining moment of how close a society we are. At the end, we emerged on the other side, as painful as it was and still is.
The people of Sichuan province have defied the odds,” he says. Inside the hall is a place that allows visitors to experience what is like to be on the ground or a building when an earthquake erupts. The place creates the illusion of the earthquake while the walls surrounding the place make a reflection of buildings falling down and people screaming for help. As haunting as it is, the guide says it helps to understand what those who went through in May 2008 felt.
*Mpho Mokwape is in Beijing, China on the ongoing Fourth China Africa Press Centre Programme, in which 27 African journalists are experiencing and exploring the Oriental giant