Forty-four year old Zheng Qiang is a Colonel in the armed forces based in Youxian District, Mianzhu City in Sichuan Province. This tough example of the Qiang ethnic group burst into tears when recalling painful memories of the earthquake: among his 36 relatives in the hard-hit county of Beichuan, 14 were dead, 15 still missing, and only 7 were known to have survived. "I'll carry the sense of guilt for the rest of my life. I owe them so much," he choked through his sobs.
"Because I'm a PLA commander"
Patiently and painfully, Zheng recalled the events of May 12. When the earthquake hit, He was in Mianyang Military Subzone, preparing for a training class in Chengdu. The quake put a stop to that. At 14:40, Zheng ordered: "Militiamen, on parade!"
Nearly all his relatives live in Beichuan County, and he realized that they would be in the front line of the devastating disaster. However, he chose to march to Tangjiashan instead of Beichuan in order to verify the condition of an earthquake induced lake which, if not dealt with properly, might put tens of thousands of Mianyang people downstream in danger.
After a night of relief work at Tangjiashan, Zheng led his troop back to Mianyang. Without stopping to rest, they then headed for the severely devastated Beichuan. "As a native of Beichuan, I could not allow a further second's delay when my hometown was suffering."
In normal circumstances it was a 10-minute drive to Beichuan from Mianyang. But on May 13, due to severe landslides and aftershocks, the rescue troop spent almost two hours on the road.
The moment Zheng Qiang stepped on to the soil of Beichuan, he was overwhelmed by the tragic scene. Nearly everything was destroyed. Though he knew only too well where his own relatives were buried, he left them and rushed to Beichuan No. 1 Middle School, where the casualties were worst. "I had to do that because I am a communist and a PLA commander. My troops are not from Beichuan – how could I face them if I put my own relatives first? Nor could I be seen to weep in front of my fellow soldiers."
"I had promised my nephew a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken)"
Through the whole night the troop toiled without cease at their rescue work. In the early morning of May 14, survivors searching through the rubble talked about the nightmare of fear and desperation. In an attempt to postpone the inevitable bad news of his own relatives, he continued his efforts, knowing that other possible survivors needed him badly.
Finally his surviving younger brother and sister-in-law told him the cruel facts: of his extended family – 14 dead and 15 missing with little hope of survival. At this point his strength gave way – the pain of losing close family, added to the guilt of leaving them helpless, overcame his last reserves. Without sleep or food for two whole days, the tough soldier finally collapsed.
The thing for which Zheng Qiang finds it hardest to forgive himself is that he will owe his lovely nephew a KFC, for ever. The weekend before the dreadful quake his nephew disrupted Zheng's nap and asked if they could play together. Overcome with grief, he recalls: "I promised to take him for a KFC that afternoon. There was an unexpected emergency in the department, and I left without carrying out my promise. Such a simple commitment has become the sorrow of my life."
"The people are so steadfast"
From May 12 to 23 Zheng toiled without rest until he was forced to take time out at the Xinhua Hotel to prepare for his report. In some ways it was a relief to be distracted from his losses, knowing how much he was needed. "Those survivors deserve more care and attention; they are all my relatives." He had covered every inch of Mianyang City, and gone without a proper meal for more than ten days. As a result, he had a severe ulcer. The pain it caused was clear as he spoke with the reporter.
Nevertheless, touched by the simple and profound resilience of the people in the disaster area, he felt not a trace of self-pity. He told the reporter a story of one family: An old disabled couple, whose son lost a leg, saw their house destroyed in the quake. But when they encountered the soldiers they made no demand or complaint, instead offering their sincere gratitude. They were apologetic at the thought of troubling the authorities. At that moment, said Zheng Qiang, they felt like family to him.
For a few moments he was quiet, then sighed with emotion, "The people are so steadfast. Compared to their pain, my hurts are really nothing. Our relief work brought home to us the warmth of humanity. We owe it to all to fight on with resolve, for the people and for the nation."
(China.org.cn by Fan Junmei, May 30, 2008)