China's lost children

Al Jazeera's David Hawkins on the heavy toll wrought by the recent earthquake.

    The May 12 Sichuan earthquake took a heavy toll on the region's children


    Driving through Dujiangyan, a resort town in China's Sichuan province that was hit by the May 12 earthquake, was surprising.

    I'd expected the place to be in ruins, like a factory village further up in the hills we'd visited the previous day. But it wasn't.


    Most of the buildings were still standing and people were going about their business. There were cars on the roads. The shops were mostly open.


    The speed with with the school came down has
    raised questions over construction standards
    Only a few buildings had collapsed. A lot of them though, were schools.


    The school we visited, the Xian Jin Primary School, was down an alley. More than 600 children were at their desks when the powerful magnitude 7.8 quake hit.


    About half of them were killed when their school collapsed into a heap of broken concrete and twisted steel reinforcement bars.


    About those bars – they're supposed to give the building strength. But walking through what's left of the school, I noticed that a lot of the twisted steel bars were thinner than my little finger.


    I don't know anything about construction techniques, but it seems obvious that whoever built this school, and the 7,000 or so others like it that also collapsed during the earthquake, didn't build it properly.


    It's even more painfully obvious considering that all -­ every one - of the apartment buildings surrounding the Xian Jin school are still standing. Most are only slightly damaged. People are still living in them.




    In video

    Watch David Hawkins' report from Dujiangyan

    We'd arrived at the school early in the morning when no one was there. In the rubble we found reminders of the things that are important to six-to-12-year-old kids: A Barbie doll. A football. A pencil case. Notebooks.


    A torn poster celebrating the upcoming Olympics drifted through the schoolyard.


    Children's shoes were strewn about. An art project that surely would have made a child's parents proud was covered with dust.


    Then the parents arrived.


    The school collapsed while most of the
    buildings nearby stayed standing
    Most stood at the edge of the pile of debris where their children perished, holding pictures of their little boy or girl, taken in much happier times.


    One held up a photo of her dead son for everyone to see. Another couple walked into the middle of the pile of rubble, and set up a small shrine.


    Before a gilt-framed photo of their daughter, maybe eight-years-old, they burned paper money as Chinese tradition calls for and laid down small items of food, presumably her favourites.


    I don't know her name or anything about her. Her parents were too grief-stricken to talk. But I can imagine the anguish her parents are feeling.




    My son is nine, about the same age as many of the kids whose young bodies were torn and crushed here.


    The little girl's mother sobbed uncontrollably until she was exhausted. I couldn't keep back my own tears. Even now, when I watch the story we broadcast later, I choke up.


    Many families have lost their only child under
    China's strict family planning policies
    Some psychologists say that people who tragically lose loved ones go through three stages: denial, grief, then anger.


    Now the parents of the children who died in the earthquake are getting angry. They want to know why the schools were shoddily built. They want to know who is responsible.


    But the Chinese government hasn't given them any answers.


    It doesn't want the question to be asked. It's broken up small memorials and demonstrations by parents, afraid perhaps of the political ramifications.


    As always, China's leaders must keep control.


    Among the parents, there was a man with a camera, taking pictures, not of what's left of the school, but of the other people who had come to pay their respects or to grieve.


    Plainclothes officials arrived and politely, but insistently, demanded to see our papers.


    Soon after that the police came, along with about 20 soldiers. They told everyone to leave; that they were sealing the place off "for our safety".


    Of course, that wasn't the reason. Chinese officials don't want the story to be told.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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