A kettle fell and the house came down

News and Press Release
Originally published
Dateline ACT
China No 3/98
When an earthquake shook the southern plateau of Inner Mongolia in China entire villages were laid in ruins. Dateline ACT brings the first foreigner s report from the January earthquake in this closed part of China s Hebei Province.

By Nils Carstensen

Zhangjiakou, March 10, 1998

Wang Shu Mai sits on a bed in a green felt covered tent. Next to her bed a kettle is boiling on a small stove. Wang Shu is in her early twenties and in between explaining what happened that day at noon just about two month ago, she hides her face and her tears, behind her hands.

I was washing clothes and was just about to get up to pour more boiling water when the earth suddenly shook. I m still not sure what happened - whether it was just the hot water or if I also got burned by the fire."

Wang Shu Mai is just back from almost two months in hospital, but her left leg is still far from healed after the severe burns she got that day.

It hurt so much that I got all numb and remember nothing about what happened after that. Only when I got to the hospital, I could really feel the pain again. Even now it still hurts all the time," she explains while dressing her wounds with white cotton rags.

But the tears streaming down Wang Shu s face has less to do with the pain from the burn than the fact that her mother, who was with her in the house, was killed in the collapsing house in those fatal seconds on January 10 this year.

Wang Shu s mother was one of 49 people killed when an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, hit thousands of remote villages scattered across the southern slopes of the Inner Mongolian Plateau in Hebei Province, China.

About one hundred metres away and across what used to be the village s main street, stands Gau Yu Ming s temporary home - another green felt coated tent donated by ACT-Amity Foundation.

We were in the house having lunch," explains Gau Yu Ming, and suddenly I heard this loud sound. I did not know what it was but then there was a tremor, things started falling down, cracks opened in the walls and we just rushed outside as fast as we could."

Gau Ming s family, his two children, wife and parents, all got out in time before the walls and, with them the roof, came down. All around houses, were collapsing and about 20 people in our village got caught between the bricks, wood and stones. Together we dug them out and helped them but four people died here," says Gau Ming.

About half a million people were affected by the earthquake and within seconds 44,000 people found themselves homeless and exposed to the biting winds, snow and temperatures ranging as far down as minus 32 C of the Mongolian winter.

Shangaigou village, where Gau Ming and Wang Shu live with their families, was one of the worst hit in the entire earthquake zone and not one single house or building survived the earthquake intact. Seen from a distance, what used to be a village now blends in with the winter brown, grassy but rock strewn hills and plains of the Bah Shang" - the highlands.

The streets and alleys between Shangaigou s 300 and some houses are now just footpaths between heaps of bricks and stones. But next to most of the ruined houses smoke rises from small corrugated chimneys above the tents.

It was bitterly cold that first night," remembers Gau Ming s wife, Zhao Zhen Jan. We set about making a temporary shelter with stones, bits of wood and some straw, and that kept us and the children alive through the first days and nights. On the 12 January we got this tent which has provided us with shelter since."

As details about the earthquake got out to nearby township and county officials, a major emergency operation was set in motion within hours. About 40 health teams were dispatched to the villages along with locally based units of the Chinese army which provided transport and rescue teams as well as the first batches of warm clothes, blankets and tents. As the news spread to provincial and national authorities and organizations, more assistance was mobilized.

According to official Chinese sources no other human lives were lost, other than those who died from their immediate injuries. A fact which speaks for itself about the efficiency of the emergency operation especially considering the snow storms and arctic temperatures in the following nights and days.

Neighbours helped neighbours, lesser damaged villages provided assistance and shelter to those worse affected, while local trucks carried relief supplies to the villages and returned with the wounded to the nearest clinics and hospitals. Within 48 hours everybody had been provided a temporary shelter along with food and medical assistance if needed.

ACT International s member in China is the Amity Foundation. Based as it is in the Southern Chinese City of Nanjing, Amity got the news in the evening of January 10, via the Chinese media. The following morning they started organizing their response.

Amity inquired with local partners in the Hebei province about the detailed needs, while simultaneously contacting the ACT office in Geneva and other ecumenical partners for financial support. Within a few days of the earthquake ACT-Amity truck loads including 40 tents, 1250 blankets and 40 tons of food reached the affected villagers on the Mongolian Plateau. Added to the substantial amounts of aid coming to the earthquake zone from all corners of China this has since enabled all the homeless to be temporarily re-housed as well as helped feed the population in need during the crisis.

ACT-Amity has just revisited the areas worst affected and is about to conclude agreements with the villagers and local authorities about plans for rehabilitation of homes and schools in eight or nine villages in Zhangbei and Shangyi counties.

"We plan to help the people in some of the worst hit villages," explains Mrs Tan Li Ying of ACT-Amity Foundation.

"Each family will receive building materials worth about 3,000 Yan (US$ 365) so they can build an initial one or two rooms for themselves. Apart from that we will help rebuild two primary schools which will serve the children in all the villages as they are all situated close by one another," say Mrs Tan Li Ying.

Without assistance from the outside it is doubtful when the villagers would be able to rebuild their homes. The southern slopes of the Mongolian Plateau are some of China s poorest with a per capita income of less than $ US 150 per year. This is mainly due to meagre farming conditions as the soil is poor and the climate only allows for about 100 frost free days per year. And while an economic booms seems to continue in China s coastal provinces, life up here on the "Bah Shang" seems untouched by the economic developments elsewhere. With inputs from ACT-Amity the farmers now hope to begin rebuilding their homes by April or May - as soon as the spring sun finally drives the last frost out of their soil and grass lands.

Nils Carstensen is the Communications Officer with ACT International and visited northern Hebei Province , China, early March this year.

Pictures to go with the above story along with video footage from some of the same locations will be available shortly from ACT International and Photo Oikoumene (WCC).

For further information please contact Nils Carstensen (mobile ++ 41 79 358 3171).

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ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.