Thu, May 22, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Anger is growing among bereaved parents of Sichuan Province

THE GUARDIAN , DUJIANGYAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA

Zhou Yao, aged about six, beams at the camera as she poses in a garden. Then she is a confident nine-year-old, hands on hips, head cocked.

At 14, she is deliberately pensive, with the self-consciousness of a girl who knows she will soon become a woman.

That photograph is the last one in her mother’s pile. There will be no more.

Yao’s casket of ashes now stands in her parents’ home in Dujiangyan. They found her body hours after the Juyuan Middle School collapsed in the earthquake on Monday last week.

Like families across Sichuan Province, her parents are angry and disbelieving.

Almost 7,000 classrooms across the quake zone were destroyed, the government has acknowledged.

Thousands of children were entombed as they studied. Hundreds of children are believed to have died in Juyuan and at another school across town.

Similar numbers were trapped in the wreckage of seven schools in Mianzhu, the middle school at Beichuan and a high school in Shifang County. The toll is staggering, even in a province that has seen so much death.

In Beichuan, the whole town was devastated; only a handful of single-story buildings seem to have survived. But in Dujiangyan, the distress of parents is magnified by the fact that most buildings — even those directly next to the collapsed schools — still stand.

Passions have become so inflamed that the government has pledged to investigate claims of shoddy construction, possibly linked to corruption, and to severely punish those responsible. It has even fielded the questions of grieving parents online, a remarkable act of openness.

“The tragedy has happened and I have to face up to it. We just want justice,” said Yao’s mother, Wang Fengying, her reddened face smeared with tears.

Amid exercise books and school textbooks, she pulled out a certificate of merit for excelling in exams. Competition for entry at Juyuan was fierce and Yao had to fight her way in.

“Chinese, math and English — she got good marks in all of them,” her mother said. “The school gave them a very good education. But the quality of the buildings was very bad.”

Stacking up the schoolbooks again in a basket, she slumped with grief.

“I have a strong character, but when I see these I feel crushed. I want to burn them but I can’t make up my mind to do it,” she said. “I could overcome any difficulties, but not this one.”

Yao’s brother flicked through the pages of a schoolbook listlessly; he helped to dig his little sister out of the rubble. The family is convulsed with grief, her grandmother choking on sobs. Even the infant son of a watching neighbor is solemn.

“All the innocent lives were taken by this big disaster. We want an explanation from the school,” Wang said. “Children are the future of the nation. But the school didn’t treasure them. The teacher came here, but the officials haven’t even sent their condolences.”

Parents with no history of challenging authority are determined that someone must account for their loss.

Just up the road at the town’s crematorium, a mother sitting by the ashes of her 11-year-old daughter showed us mobile phone images of the wreckage from Xinjian Elementary School. She did not want to give her name, but was eager to talk.

“All the parents are angry. Look, there’s no steel in the concrete. We want to fight for justice together, that’s why we took these pictures,” she said. “We’ve been collecting evidence and taking samples. The debris was basically sand — not even pieces of concrete.”

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