Tuesday, May 12, 2009
China remembers deadly Sichuan earthquake
BEICHUAN, China (AFP) — Chinese President Hu Jintao led the nation in a minute's silence on Tuesday at the epicentre of the powerful Sichuan earthquake that flattened homes and communities one year ago.
At 2:28 pm (0628 GMT), the exact moment the disaster struck this southwest province, a grim-faced Hu presided over the ceremony broadcast live on state television from the town of Yingxiu.
He and other leaders laid a white chrysanthemum -- a symbol of mourning -- at a commemorative wall near a massive sculpture of a clock, its hands forever frozen at that fateful minute.
Nearly 87,000 people died in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake or remain missing after a disaster that galvanised the nation but left deep emotional scars.
"Gradually, the reconstruction efforts have had important results, and the people in the disaster-hit areas are striding toward a new life," Hu said in a speech after the Chinese flag was hoisted over the ruins of Yingxiu.
Across the mountainous region, mourners wept as they knelt before collapsed buildings and set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. Many lit incense or burned paper money as offerings to the dead.
Roads to the town of Beichuan, which was one of the worst hit, were jammed with vehicles as survivors and tourists alike arrived to remember the lost.
"I have come to mourn the loss of my two brothers and their wives," said Wu Guangjun, a stocky 46-year-old construction worker.
"They are still in the rubble. We have not found their bodies."
Police said it was hard to calculate how many people had come to Beichuan on Tuesday, although one official estimated up to 100,000 were walking among the ruins of the town which is to be preserved as an earthquake museum.
The quake zone remains an area of unmarked graves with nearly 18,000 people still listed as missing -- presumably buried under the rubble of China's worst natural disaster in three decades.
"One year may be long enough for the most serious wounds to recover but not for broken hearts," the official China Daily said in an editorial.
Life is slowly returning to normal as new homes, schools and factories are being built at a feverish rate at construction sites across Sichuan, although entire communities have been relocated.
The consequences are likely to be felt for years to come. Some 1.5 million homes have yet to be completely rebuilt, while 200,000 people made jobless are still unable to find employment, according to government data.
For many survivors, notably parents, the most controversial aspect remains the way schools crumbled to the ground -- testimony to sloppy construction.
The government has told local people that tourism could help them recover from the tragedy.
In Beichuan, stalls and shops lined the road outside the city gate, where vendors sold quake souvenirs, ethnic Qiang minority arts and crafts and local specialities such as wild mushrooms, fruits and nuts.
Among the survivors, stories abounded of lucky escapes.
Li Kaifu, a 40-year-old worker at the Hongda Chemical Factory, recalled he was at the doorway of the plant in Deyang city when the earthquake hit.
"When it started I thought for sure I was a goner," he told AFP.
"I remember all the buildings started to crumble. All around me they were falling.
"My mind was racing, I panicked and ran outside. Everywhere buildings were collapsing. It was incredible."
Others lingered over the first days and weeks after the disaster, when aid streamed in from the rest of China, some of it provided outside state control by volunteers -- especially from the nation's growing middle classes.
"The deepest memory for me was a few days after the quake, we had no water and were really thirsty," said Yang Lizhen, a 30-year-old tour guide.
"I was out near the main road and we saw truckload after truckload bringing in supplies. I felt so relieved."
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- ▼ May (5)