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(Chien-min Chung)

Where once stood a town

A photojournalist visits Beichuan after the earthquake

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Chien-min Chung
May 25, 2008

AFTER THE MAY 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province, I traveled to Beichuan, one of the hardest hit towns.

When I arrived, I found scenes of overwhelming destruction - rolling hills of jumbled wreckage, the facades of apartment buildings that now faced skyward. Yet there were survivors who came back every day in the hopes of finding people they knew. This was quite dangerous, and they knew it: An aftershock could easily send people tumbling down one of the slopes of jutting metal, glass, and concrete.

In one part of town, I came across a group of rescue workers, dressed in bright orange suits, and the army, looking for survivors. It appeared that the quake had sheared massive rocks off the mountain and sent them rolling down into the buildings. Here there seemed to be little prospect of finding anyone alive.

Even more grim was the work of two men wearing gas masks who waited for trucks carrying bodies. Every few minutes, a truck would arrive. The men loaded the corpses into a construction pit that had become a huge burial ground. They then disinfected the truck, and themselves, and waited for the next delivery.

The town of Beichuan is no more, and the plans are to demolish what's still standing.

On my last day in Beichuan the police erected a roadblock. But two other photographers and I found a back road into town. During the week, there had been rescue workers, soldiers, and locals looking for survivors, but on this day it was virtually empty. It was unsettling: What little life there had been during the week, with people milling around, was gone and replaced by silence. The entire town felt like a huge grave. That's my last memory of Beichuan.

Chien-min Chung is a freelance photographer based in Beijing.

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