In the valley of the dead
Town’s dreams sealed forever
By THANE BURNETT, Toronto SUN
Fri, June 20, 2008
BEICHUAN, China — Most of the spaces around China’s most infamous dead town are beginning to fill in with a steady flow of life.
Much of the busy activity, though, is aimed at further sealing off doomed Beichuan, while finding ways of moving just beyond its death.
Each Chinese community struck by last month’s massive earthquake seems a little worse off than the next.
But the fate of Beichuan — cradled in one of the world’s most beautiful valleys — continues to shock even those who have witnessed the cruelest images here.
The county around Sichuan once was home to about 160,000 people. Most lived close to the town, with its mix of ancient paths and modern buildings, all shouldering up against the hillsides that are usually lush and green.
Officially, the quake that struck the mountainous province of Sichuan is listed at a magnitude of 7.9, but people here believe, at this point at least, it must have reached 10. How else, they argue, could it have reduced 80% of the community to rubble — buildings falling into one another like dominoes?
As many as 8,000 people remain rotting inside the core of Beichuan. Some were pulled out and hurriedly buried in a mass grave near the central police station — once hair and teeth samples were collected for DNA identification.
But then, on June 10, in the hopes of relieving pressure from a straining lake formed by the quake, water was allowed to rush through and flood into the crooks and crevices of Beichuan. Teapots, chairs and bodies could be seen flowing downstream in the foaming brown current.
Driving in past huge boulders and keeping my head down through two checkpoints, I find the air at the edge of town thick with the smell of chemicals. It stings the throat and overpowers any lingering rot.
Military chemical trucks line the road. Chinese officials are obsessed with stopping the spread of disease.
At the town borders, heavy equipment flattens what wasn’t already destroyed by the quake or rushing waters.
This is no rebuild. Beichuan, like the thousands of people it still clings to, will never rise up from this.
The entire town will be rebuilt some distance away. Elaborate plans are being drawn up, and it will be bigger and safer, officials promise.
GREY CHARCOAL SKETCH
While a busy humanity knocks and bangs at the borders of the abandoned Beichuan, inside the town — which looks like a grey charcoal sketch — it’s said a single police officer patrols. He’s in a car with the windows taped shut. And while he’s never allowed to step out of the vehicle — using a loudspeaker to move along locals — when he’s tired, he comes out to sleep in an isolation tent.
Beyond the officer’s patrol, all around the dead zone and through the valley, people are getting on with their lives.
They pick through piles of trucked-out debris, looking for things to sell. They take smiling photos next to fallen boulders. And they take walks to collect children they will never reach.
Labourer Zhu Hong trudges out of the muddy road to the no-man’s boundary of the town he once lived in. Somewhere just beyond are the bodies of his mother, his daughter, 17, and his son, 11.
More than 1,000 children vanished inside Beichuan.
Hong was out of town when the quake hit. He returned and, before officials sealed up the area, went inside looking for his children. The son would have been in the school that collapsed, while the teenage daughter would have been with her grandmother in the end.
His face is expressionless when talking about them. Asked if he believes their bodies will ever be recovered and properly buried, he quickly shakes his head.
Most of the spaces around China’s most infamous dead town are beginning to fill in with a steady flow of life. And while China is on its way to recovering from the quake, Beichuan is dead forever.