By Zhang Xiangdong
Published: 2008-05-19

Wenchuan was enveloped in yellow dust and overcast weather as China started its three-day national mourning period for the Sichuan earthquake victims. The county was the epicenter of the quake that has claimed over 30,000 lives thus far.

The mourning ceremony here was held in the southern tip of the Wenchuan town, at a square in front of a hotel with imposing mountains as a backdrop. A temporary signpost erected by the square read: "the day to mourn for the passing of our fellow compatriots in the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake."

It had been windy since early morning, sending the yellow earth up into the air. Yet almost everyone staying in downtown Wenchuan had come to join the mourning session. Among them were soldiers, family members of the dead, volunteers from elsewhere, and survivors from nearby towns. By rough estimate, around a thousand people had congregated for the ceremony.

Rocks frequently rolled down the nearby mountains about 50 meters away from the square and landslides continued to occur here. When the rocks landed on army vehicles, loud clang emitted from the latter's metal surface. Yet the attention of the crowds was focused on the flag lowered at half-mast for those taken by the disaster.

Only the sound of wind and the fluttering flag filled the air as everyone around stayed silent. The immense quietness and motionless was finally broken by the sobbing of a few elderly. When the clock struck 14:28, all the army vehicles at the square sounded their honks; by then, no one could hold back their emotions anymore.

Tears flowed freely, rolling down faces and onto the white flowers worn by everyone present. As the sound of honking competed with the howling wind and echoed through the mountains, some of the survivors started to kneel down and cried beyond consoling. It was exactly this unbearable grief that had kept some survivors from attending the ceremony, they opted to mourn in their tents instead.

After the three-minute silence, the county's general secretary Wang Bin read a notice to all ethnic groups in the region on behalf of the Wenchuan people. In between sobs, he told everyone present that the Wenchuan people wouldn't be crushed and would stay strong.

Overcome by emotion, the master of ceremonies essentially hosted the entire event in tears.

When the moment of silence ended, I asked a nurse standing nearby what last Monday's 14:28 meant to her, she replied: "It was as if the end of the world. Everything was in black."

The mayor of Wenchuan County did not attend the ceremony. He was caught up in Yingxiu, one of the worst hit areas and constantly threatened by aftershocks, further landslides and risks of river and dam bursting the bank.

A group of paramilitary policemen remained stationary and in silence under a flag of arm forces even after the ceremony ended. When inquired what were they doing, an officer said they were praying for the squad involved in rescue efforts on the ground, praying for them to be safe and sound.

This morning, a squad of paramilitary policemen had left for three villages where rescue troops had never been to. About 10 of them were carrying food, water and medicine to the quake victims there.

According to the locals, the route by foot covering some 200 kilometers to the villages was mountainous and frequent landslides along the way added to the risk.