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Earthquake in China: this tragedy could quickly turn political

Jiegu earthquake: Survivors in a food tent at the race track

We have pulled out of Jiegu now. The altitude sickness was badly affecting us. I wanted to put down some quick thoughts about the situation on the ground.

The first thing is that the final death toll will be much higher than the current figure of 1484.

The buildings that collapsed in Jiegu were small houses, badly built out of breeze blocks or mud bricks and wood. When they fell, they would have instantly smothered anyone who was not strong enough to get out. There are no breathing spaces in the wreckage, and there is a lot of choking dust.

“Most of the victims are children and old people who were too weak to get out,” said one local policeman, who lost his father-in-law. “The hopes are nearly zero. Unlike Wenchuan, the rubble is compact and the dust would have smothered victims quickly.”

Tibetan monks told us the final death toll may also be difficult to work out. In the immediate aftermath, the monks collected the bodies and took them to their monasteries. Many of them have since been cremated.

After the main rescue workers arrived en masse, the authorities took over the duty of collecting the bodies, which upset the monks since they felt the victims may not get traditional funerals. An estimated 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the victims were Tibetans.

The situation could also turn political very quickly. Down at the race track, where 10,000 survivors were camped out, some Tibetans told us they were being neglected by the government, and insinuated that it was because of ethnicity. “They staged a show with the aid trucks, pretending to deliver food, but actually driving past us,” said one monk. “Look around you, the Tibetan families here have no food, water or medicine.”

In addition, we were told by Chinese reporters, who could not cover the story themselves, that a Tibetan who was caught stealing was bound and dragged through the streets. This sort of symbolic punishment, which belongs back in the era of the Cultural Revolution rather than today, could be explosive in such a highly charged situation.

It is clear that the Chinese government is keen to show its support for Tibetans. Wen Jiabao’s arrival, and visit to the Thranga monastery, is a strong statement. Hu Jintao is now on his way.

In addition, hundreds of aid trucks are still pouring into Yushu. The Tibetans are upset because there was no food or water in the immediate wake of the disaster, but the aid will arrive. The main problem is that the zone is so far away.

The fact that some families have not had relief is not because of ethnicity.

I remember after the Sichuan earthquake some victims were in camps with satellite television and abundant food while others, just down the road, were left stranded in makeshift huts with no food. What matters, sadly, in the wake of these natural disasters, is your connections.

The survivors in Jiegu who were part of state-owned enterprises, or any work collective, are being looked after by their companies, who have provided food and shelter. The people who were herdsmen or did not have a work unit, are being left to fend for themselves and did not have as much support in the immediate aftermath.

It is unfortunate, but it is not because they are Tibetan. As we left the city, the situation was grim, with a high chance of more deaths from infections and lack of relief. But I hope and believe things will rapidly improve over the next few days.

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Comment by Jan on April 19, 2010 at 12:46pm
Over 1,700 Tibetans were killed and tens of thousands injured in the earthquake that struck the eastern Tibetan Plateau Wednesday morning, April 14th. The quake demolished the town that serves as a major supply center for the five schools that Tibet Aid serves in that region. Our schools were not damaged in the original quake or in the aftershocks, but some of our teachers and friends lost their entire families.

The Chinese government has committed itself to meeting basic material needs yet has declined to admit volunteers, international aid organizations, and journalists to the region. Tibetan monks, nuns, and villagers are working tirelessly to assist the wounded and grieving. Because our Rural Tibetan Elementary School programs are administered from villages in the surrounding area, we are in a position to support the local Tibetan relief efforts.

We are requesting donations of any amount to provide emergency food, clothing, and shelter; transportation for lamas and Tibetan aid workers; medical supplies, including traditional Tibetan medicines; and translators. You can donate by contacting us with your credit or debit card information, by using a special PayPal link we have placed online (,

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