May 24, 2008 / 7:37 AM / 11 years ago

Overwhelmed by death, Sichuan disinfects

MUYU TOWN, China (Reuters) - On a hillside above a collapsed middle school in Sichuan, biohazard workers in white suits scattered lime and sprayed disinfectant on hundreds of small, fresh graves, while two armed policemen stood watch.

Soldiers scatter disinfectant on a street in the earthquake-hit Beichuan county, Sichuan province May 23, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Then a backhoe scooped up fresh dirt and completely covered the graves with their small triangles of cinderblock or stone, the white flowers and offerings, and the one wooden tablet with the names “Feng Zhengyuan, Feng Zhengjun, Brothers”.

With tens of thousands of corpses from the May 12 earthquake littering the broken landscape, Sichuan is struggling to prevent disease from spreading into water sources and crowded tent camps.

The Sichuan government has named an official in charge of corpses, and tries to respect both the families and local traditions, said Sanrenmuguin, an official with the province’s civil affairs bureau.

But crematoriums can’t cope, he added.

In many towns where the numbers are too overwhelming, such as Yingxiu at the epicenter, the army has dug mass graves to bury the thousands of dead. In town after town, relatives keep vigil over the rubble for a last glimpse of the bodies.

“What can you do? There were too many,” said Li Rong, in Xiang’e. Her cousin was one of the hundreds of students so mangled when the Xiang’e middle school collapsed that they were all buried together with their teachers in a 10-foot deep pit.

TABOO

Death pervades the ruined towns in the “disaster area,” where somber people wait in neat tent towns.

Disinfection trucks drive along the streets, spraying chlorine over piles of rubble and the tarps on the sidewalks. Workers with backpacks move purposefully about, spraying disinfectant between tents and on the feet of passers-by.

A disinfection perimeter set up around the disaster area has gotten more elaborate every day. Mats in the roadway soaked with disinfectant have given way to a line of masked, suited workers who sprayed disinfectant up and down the sides of cars.

A second line of crouching workers armed with thick hoses shoots disinfectant at tyres. The stigma of death and disaster in the area clings to people.

“Don’t worry, even though we are in the disaster area, our water is clean,” one villager said, as his wife offered bowls of hot, orange liquid to visiting reporters.

Drivers ferrying reporters refused to eat, relieve themselves in the disaster area, or fill up with petrol, and kept car windows shut when possible.

“I wouldn’t eat that,” said one driver named Wang, eyeing a cucumber offered by a volunteer at a refugee station.

“That’s a disaster cucumber.”

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