Thousands Pour Out Of Hills, Into Stadium

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.

[After initially refusing foreign offers of relief workers, the government allowed a Japanese rescue team to enter the country early Friday and said specialists from Russia, South Korea and Singapore would be welcome as well, the Associated Press reported from Beijing.]

As time passed, hope of finding survivors diminished. But a 22-year-old woman was pulled from rubble in Dujiangyan, northwest of Chengdu, and was shown on Chinese television thanking her rescuers. Others were snaked from under the rubble in Beichuan city, away from the camera's eye.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who has visited quake-stricken towns and villages tirelessly since Monday, appeared on official China Central Television presiding over a meeting of local officials and urging rescuers to press on in the search for survivors.

"The people need you," he told them, his voice breaking as he shouted through a bullhorn.

Wen has been the party's most visible symbol of determination to overcome the tragedy and move efficiently to help the victims. Hu Jintao, the president and party chief, had stayed out of the spotlight until Friday, when the New China News Agency said he flew out of Beijing on the way to visit quake-damaged areas. According to official reports, he has presided over two quake-related meetings of the Politburo's Standing Committee in Beijing and ordered an all-out rescue effort from the party and government machinery.

The toll of confirmed dead in Sichuan rose to 19,500 Thursday, a provincial official said, and was expected to climb further in coming days. The central government warned that the final toll might exceed 50,000. For the moment, 26,000 were listed as buried in the rubble, including 18,000 in Beichuan and other localities in the Mianyang-administered area, though some may have been rescued. In addition,14,000 were listed as missing.

As families trudged into Jiu Zhou stadium in little clutches, Qiu Dahong, 45, stood by himself. In a long, tranquil conversation, he said he had lost everything he cherished but still had faith in the party's ability to handle the crisis.

The farmer and longtime party member, wearing a military cap emblazoned with a red star, said his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson were all killed when the earthquake flattened their home in Qinchuan village.

Speaking with no display of emotion, looking exhausted but collected, Qiu said he will wait in the stadium until someone from the government tells him what to do next. He cannot return to Qinchuan, he said, because there is no electricity and he has nowhere to live.

"My house is gone," he said. "Our houses, our farms, it's all gone."

Qiu said he escaped harm because he was at the village cemetery attending a funeral when the tremor struck at 2:28 p.m. He returned home as soon as the shaking stopped to find his house leveled and his family dead under the rubble.

In all, he estimated, 100 of the village's 400 inhabitants were killed and the others were left homeless. Since the village was cut off by buckled roads, he said, he stayed put until passage was reopened Wednesday by a military rescue team that helped him find a ride to Mianyang.

Deng Zongfu, 40, said he knows how to rebuild his farmhouse, in Longkao village near Beichuan, but does not have the money. His home, he said, is "completely flat."

He and his wife, Yong Mingcui, 38, and their son, Ziguan, 11, were unharmed when the earth shook because they were outside tending the family's two-acre plot of cabbages and other vegetables.

Like Qiu, Deng said he was waiting for word from the government on what to do next. Meanwhile, volunteers organized by the Mianyang city government brought cauldrons of rice porridge and stacks of dumplings for lunch. A pile of used clothes more than six feet high stood at the stadium entrance for those in need, and water bottles were handed out.

A city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to deal with reporters, said Mianyang's entire government staff had been pressed into service. The focus for now is getting people out of the devastated quake zone and caring for them in shelters, he said. What comes next, he said, remains to be seen.

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