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China earthquake: Survivors huddle in the hills, no longer trusting their town

April 16, 2010

Driven from their shattered homes the people of badly hit Jiegu are
living outdoors, hungry, fearful of more tremors and desperate for
better rescue gear than their bare hands and shovels

* Tania Branigan Jiegu, Qinghai province
* www.guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 April 2010 21.36 BST


When a faint tremor briefly disturbed Sanden Dolma's sleep early on
Tuesday morning she did what most inhabitants across the town of Jiegu
did: murmured a prayer, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But a
couple of hours later, her bed began to shake again.

This time, it did not stop. She stumbled to her door, but found she
could not walk out; she had to crawl as the ground swayed beneath her.
 From her hands and knees, she looked up to see a world thick with dust.

The town, sited deep in China's north-west Qinghai province, is paying
dearly for its moment of trust. An estimated 600 lie dead, 8,000 are
injured and many more are homeless after a 6.9 magnitude quake struck
shortly after that first warning tremor.

Located in the remote Yushu county, a mountainous landscape sparsely
dotted with tiny settlements, the overwhelmingly Tibetan town is the
biggest for well over 60 miles. Like much of Qinghai it is impoverished
compared with central and eastern China, but in recent years an
increasing number of modern constructions, alongside the traditional
wood and brick homes, have been erected here.

As Sanden Dolma groped her way across the pavement she squinted up to
see the upper storey of her neighbours' home come crashing down.
Eight-year-old Bema and five-year-old Banjul somehow leapt to safety
from the staircase as their house collapsed around them. Their father,
Ogin Dhorje, suffered serious head injuries, their mother, Yang Xin, was
buried in the rubble.

"Last night we all slept up in the hills without clothes and food –
countless people. But I don't know where the boys are. They have no
mother now and no one is sure where their father is," said Sanden Dolma.
She feared they might not survive another night in the open with no one
to care for them.

Black smoke is still pouring from the huge mound of rubble to the other
side of her home. Once a three-storey complex of homes and shops, it is
now a mass of crumbling concrete, wire, and detritus – items of everyday
life, from coloured quilts to toothpaste tubes.

Close by lay the body of a revered Buddhist monk, wrapped in a brown
blanket tied with chord. Friends had scrambled through wreckage to find
him, but said they could not afford a car to get him back to his
monastery for cremation. "We will have to leave him with the
authorities," one said.

Many of the modern buildings appear hardly damaged, though some of their
walls show long cracks. But along the streets, concrete blocks tumble
into the road and the ornately carved beams of traditional buildings are
splintered. A bed dangled precariously from a first-floor room: the
front wall had simply slid into the street. Older brick and mud
dwellings disintegrated.

But even as Yushu counts the cost of this disaster, people are worrying
about what they will do next. Tent settlements have already appeared in
town squares, at the race track and along the riverside. Those whose
homes appear intact are too frightened to return.

Some residents have acquired the official government shelters, or
salvaged tents from their own homes. But many were bedding down for a
second night in sub-zero temperatures, with only quilts salvaged from
their wrecked homes to protect them. Others huddled in their jackets
around fires built from planks pulled out of the rubble. With an
altitude of 3,700 metres (12,140ft), and snow still on the high mountain
peaks, Yushu is icy even in spring.

"There's not enough food, not enough water. They send in trucks with dry
noodles and everyone runs for them," said Chenle, a monk, who had
gathered with friends in a woodland encampment. "During the night we
huddle up together just to keep warm."

The remoteness of the area has not helped relief efforts. On Wednesday a
few heavy diggers could be seen trundling the 500 miles from Qinghai's
capital, Xining, along a twisting, rutted, mountainous road. Some had
already got to the town, but much of the rescue work had been done by
residents themselves, often with their bare hands. Although a huge
number of relief teams had flown in, even the specialist rescue workers
in orange-jumpsuits were using shovels. Just a handful had high-tech
equipment such as cutting gear.

In the afternoon hundreds listened to the Chinese prime minister, Wen
Jiabao, as he made pledges about the rescue. Many survivors felt they
had largely relied on themselves, though others suggested the event had
simply outpaced the authorities' ability to cope.

"They are doing something, but the results are not so good. In many
places people need much more help. Maybe there are just too many people
to deal with," said Perwe, 44, a local man.

Some saw the disaster as just another blow. One monk said: "Since 2008
things have not been good for Tibetans."

That was the year riots in Lhasa led to unrest that rippled across the
Tibetan plateau, then was rapidly suppressed by the authorities.

But amid the devastation, some had good reason to celebrate. Gama
Tenzin's family was one of three crammed into a tent on the outskirts of
the town, short of food and warm clothing. But he had pulled his
36-year-old wife and their one-month-old baby alive from the wreckage.
The disaster had been enough to make the couple reconsider their future.
"We used to have cattle but we moved into town 10 years ago because we
wanted our children to go to school. Now I'm thinking I want to go back
to the grasslands," Gama Tenzin said. "I don't have livestock now but
maybe I could look after someone else's. At least it's a safer place."

Jiegu's inhabitants no longer trust their town.

* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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