In Yunnan earthquake aftermath, scenes of grief, despair - and hope

Ludian, Yunnan Province: After a Sunday morning toiling in the mountains, Xiao Jinrong was sorting the Sichuan peppers he had picked when the earthquake hit.

As the walls shook violently around him, the 56-year-old farmer turned to dash out of his mud hut, but he caught his neck on a fallen power line. Then a collapsed wall buried his left leg, shattering his ankle.

Trapped, Xiao yelled for help for half an hour before his nephew arrived, picking through the rubble and then piggybacking him more than seven kilometres to safety.

Xiao, from a village in the township of Longtoushan, the worst-affected town in Sunday afternoon’s quake, says he was deeply affected by what he saw while hunched over his nephew’s shoulders.

“There are so many people dead and injured in my village,” Xiao says, speaking from his bed at Ludian People’s Hospital, his injured foot propped up on a pillow. “They were being carried out and laid against a mound.”

In all, the quake has claimed at least 398 lives in China’s remote south-west, injuring almost 2000 and flattening 12,000 houses in Ludian county alone.

Xiao is from the township of Longtoushan, the worst-affected town by the magnitude 6.5 quake.

The earthquake has wrought devastation over one of the poorest and remote regions of China, crippling communities that never had much to begin with.

Living standards in these mountainous parts of Yunnan at the best of times are a shadow of the level found in the thriving urban megacities more frequently associated with modern China.

As a subsistence farmer, Xiao had a couple of cows and a cornfield, and supplemented his family’s income by picking peppers.

“We are very poor, our annual income is only a couple of thousand [yuan] (about $340),” Xiao says. “Now with our house gone we have absolutely nothing.”

In Ludian, the hospitals' capacity to absorb the wounded is stretched. On Monday night, patients at the Ludian People’s Hospital were spilling out into the corridors. Two children would often share one hospital bed. At the Ludian Hengbo hospital, patients stretched out on beds filling the ground floor lobby, while a primary school was being used to accommodate yet more of the injured.

Thousands of troops have been mobilised in a massive disaster relief effort, a task made tougher by aftershocks and heavy rain on the first night.

But Xiao’s son, Xiao Gongchao, said the government’s rescue efforts had been inadequate. His father had to be saved by his own family, while his uncle’s family had no food to eat and no rescue on the scene.

“The kids at home only had one bowl of instant noodles to share,” he said.

Amid the stories of death and destruction, there were the odd bright spots, like the unlikely survival of 93-year-old Ma Caizhen, who crawled to safety by herself.

“She has good hearing and eyesight for her age, otherwise she wouldn’t have made it,” her 70-year-old daughter, Ma Yingmei said.

But then there’s other news which bring home the gravity of the situation. On Tuesday, locals said, authorities will hold mass cremations for the dead in Zhaotong city.

The story In Yunnan earthquake aftermath, scenes of grief, despair - and hope first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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