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Sichuan earthquake. Return to ground zero

By Brian Hennessy - posted Thursday, 21 May 2009

I have just spent two days in the earthquake zone.

I went there with a small group of volunteers from around China who dropped everything when the earthquake occurred, and went into the zone. Ordinary people: office-workers from Chongqing and Shanghai, off-duty policemen from Guiyang and Xi’an, a businessman from Wuhan, a housewife from somewhere, and so on. This time they were returning for the anniversary of the disaster. 5:12 or May 12, 2009.

These people are China’s yingxiong: i.e., Heroes.


A year ago, after waiting for the road to be cleared, they walked into the village of Hongbai and were confronted by an horrific scene: bodies lined along the road outside destroyed buildings. A collapsed school with hundreds of students buried under the rubble. An adjacent teachers’ quarters with more of the same. Buried teachers this time.

So they just got to work.

They slept on the ground, in a tent, and lived on packaged noodles. They added some potatoes which were accidentally discovered in the earth under their tent, and they survived on this basic fare for 10 days without complaint. The ladies with them did what they could to support the men who were called upon to the dirty work:

And the dirty work consisted of collecting the bodies, looking for ID, placing them in plastic body-bags, then burying them in mass graves.

What else can I say. I am sure that you can imagine what this task was like.

If you could see the graves today, it would break your heart. Too many of them. Particularly the separate sections for the children who were crushed to death by a collapsing school, an imploding dwelling, or killed by some other unexpected horror.


Observe the remains of incense burned in grief to help the soul of the little ones on their journey to the afterlife.

Notice old school text-books, pretty coloured school-bags, and photos of the beloved child attached to a crude concrete tombstone.

Empathise with the mothers whose grief is imprinted forever in their broken hearts.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for thirteen years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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