China / Society

Death of a local hero

By Li Yang (China Daily) Updated: 2015-08-20 07:42

 Death of a local hero

Tibetan children walk along a road lined with debris left after flash floods hit Ger Dengma village, Aba, in June. The older boy is wearing a pair of black jeans given to him by Lodro Rinchen. Li Yang / China Daily

The drowning of a young village official has highlighted the dangers facing young graduates who volunteer to work in isolated communities in some of China's remotest regions. Li Yang reports from the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.

"If someone had to die that day, I would rather it had been me, not him," Kyikyi said, with tears in his eyes. He was speaking about his late assistant, Lodro Rinchen, who drowned in a mountain flood on June 30, aged just 28.

Residents of Ger Dengma village in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province, said the 52-year-old village head always repeats that phrase when he thinks of Rinchen.

The accident happened when the officials were desperately hunting for cellphone network coverage so they could call the local authorities and request help for the village, which had been devastated by flash floods after five days of torrential rain.

No signal was available in the deep valley, so Kyikyi, Rinchen and two members of the village committee headed to a nearby mountain in the hope of finding coverage.

Ger Dengma, home to 1,000 Tibetan herdsmen in the east of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, is 90 kilometers from Aba county, the local government seat. It's one of China's poorest mountainous regions, and the locals, mainly ethnic Tibetans, live on less than $1 a day. Many have serious endemic bone and skin conditions.

On June 29, when the flood hit, most of the young people were herding yaks in the remote summer pastures, so only about 200 elderly or sick people remained in the village.

Kyikyi, Rinchen and Dowa, the former Party chief of the village, mobilized the residents and organized an exodus to a place of safety halfway up a nearby mountain. The water rose so quickly that few people had time to collect any belongings. Two hours before sunset, the villagers watched as the deluge crushed their flimsy wood, stone and mud homes, and submerged sturdier brick and mortar buildings. Most of the village disappeared under a 4-meter-deep temporary lake.

Night on the mountain

The villagers spent an uncomfortable night shivering in the open air, and at first light the four officials decided that their only hope was to contact the county government and call for emergency assistance, according to Konchok, a 50-year-old villager who is lame in one leg.

Initially, the four men headed for a nearby mountain where cellphone coverage was usually available. They quickly discovered that the network was down, so they trudged for three hours along the mud-clogged road toward a mountain farther down the valley. At about 3 pm, they reached a river, only to find that the bridge had been washed away, so they chopped down a young tree that was growing on the riverbank and allowed it to fall across the swollen watercourse.

"He (Rinchen) said he was the lightest of the four of us, so he insisted on crossing the new 'bridge' first," Kyikyi said. "Just as he got to the middle of the river, he was hit by a sudden surge that threw him into the water. I saw him struggle, but he quickly disappeared in the torrent."

Kyikyi jumped into the water without hesitation, but was dragged under by the raging current. If his clothes hadn't snagged on the branches of an overhanging tree, he would have been washed away too, he said.

After conducting a fruitless search, Kyikyi and his companions began trudging through the heavy rain again. At 8 pm, after walking for several hours, they managed to find a phone signal and contact the county government, alerting officials to the plight of the village and Rinchen's disappearance.

The government immediately sent a convoy of light trucks to the isolated village and organized a search party of 200 officials and villagers to look for Rinchen.

At 3 pm the following day, the young man's body was found 10 km downstream from the makeshift bridge, covered with scratches and with the hands tightly clenched into fists.

After Rinchen's family had paid their respects to the body, the government organized a Tibetan water burial at the spot where the body was found.

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