Thousands Pour Out Of Hills, Into Stadium

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 16, 2008

MIANYANG, China, May 16 -- Thousands of stunned peasants streamed out of devastated mountain villages in search of food and shelter Thursday, transformed into homeless refugees by the violent earthquake that ravaged central China on Monday.

More than 20,000 farmers and small-town shopkeepers, with children and elderly in tow, filled the Jiu Zhou Sports Stadium in Mianyang, about 60 miles northeast of the provincial capital, Chengdu. Officials said more were arriving by the hour as military rescue teams reopened roads and homeless families made their way out of the badly damaged Beichuan county hills just northeast of the epicenter.

One arrival, a lone woman with hair matted by dust and dark bruises staining her cheeks, was led into the stadium by a nurse. The woman looked straight ahead but seemed to see nothing, as if she were sleepwalking. She limped on her left leg and her pants were caked with the yellow dust of debris from a fallen building.

Nearby, families pushed on toward the main steps, carrying clothes in plastic bags and looking for a place to sit. Their faces were also vacant, strained from lack of sleep and the shock of what they had endured over the last 72 hours.

Atop the steps, Jia Sushi, 26, sat alone, quietly weeping and looking over the teeming entranceway. She had lost her husband soon after they arrived Wednesday from Beidisi village, she said, and she had no idea where to begin looking among the thousands of people milling about.

"Dang Hou, Dang Hou," shouted a young man walking through the crowd, searching for another lost person.

The confusion in the stadium, jammed with people sitting on the ground and surrounded by tents and tarps strung from trees, suggested the formidable dimensions of the challenge facing the Chinese government even after large-scale rescue operations are ended. Not only do the homeless peasants have to be cared for in short-term refugee centers, an official noted, but they also will have to get long-term help in rebuilding their homes, schools and stores if the area is ever to return to its traditional agriculture-based prosperity.

The government estimated that about 10 million people were directly affected by the earthquake in some way across half a dozen provinces, with Sichuan hit the hardest, according to the official New China News Agency.

Beichuan county, which has a population of more than 160,000, mostly farmers, lost an estimated 80 percent of its houses, officials told the news agency. Beichuan city, its main center 30 miles northwest of here, was largely reduced to rubble, with bodies still laid out in the streets.

"The whole county has been destroyed," Gu Qinhui, a regional director of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told reporters in Beijing after a visit to Beichuan.

Gu said about 4 million homes were destroyed across the disaster zone.

Convoys of relief equipment and supplies continued to push north from Chengdu, some sponsored by the government and others organized by business groups from around the country. The government ordered another approximately 100 helicopters dispatched to the area to help ferry supplies to isolated zones, the official news agency said.

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