Sat, May 09, 2009 - Page 9 News List

China’s bereaved quake parents, one year later

Sichuan authorities have banned reports on the high rate of miscarriages in housing camps

By Edward Wong  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MIANZHU, CHINA

Just 45 days old and swaddled in pink, Sang Ruifeng already has a purpose in life: bring to justice those responsible for the death of his 11-year-old brother.

Ruifeng will have to ensure, his father said, that the Chinese government gives a full accounting for why thousands of students died in school collapses during the earthquake that devastated southwest China one year ago. The brother that Ruifeng never knew was among 126 students crushed to death in Fuxin No. 2 Primary School outside the lush farming town of Mianzhu.

“I don’t feel happy at all,” the father, Sang Jun, said about the birth of his new son as his wife bounced the baby up and down in a neighbor’s home. “I was telling my wife today, if we can’t get justice, we’ll have our son carry on the quest for justice. This issue will be a burden on this child.”

One year after the earthquake in Sichuan Province killed about 70,000 people and left 18,000 missing, mothers across the region are pregnant or giving birth again, aided by government medical teams dispensing fertility advice and doing reverse-sterilization procedures. Because of China’s policy limiting most families to one child, the students who died were often their parents’ only offspring. Officials say they hope a wave of births will help defuse the anger that many grieving parents harbor over the collapses of so many schools on May 12 last year while nearby buildings often remained standing.

But the wounds have festered, in part because the Chinese government, wary of any challenge to its authoritarian rule, has muffled the parents and quashed public discussion of shoddy school construction. As attention focuses again on Sichuan during the first anniversary of the earthquake, the government has intensified its campaign to silence the parents and the media, resorting to harassment by police and threats of imprisonment.

“The government says, ‘Since you have a second child, why are you still asking about this?’” said Sang, a former factory worker who was detained by the police in January when he tried to take a train to Beijing to file a formal complaint. “We tell the government: ‘This is your responsibility, this is your fault. So why shouldn’t we question this?’”

Last year, officials in the central government announced that it would carry out an investigation into the school collapses, but no results have been released. In March, a Sichuan official told reporters in Beijing that the force of the earthquake rather than poor construction led to the collapses.

On April 4, during Tomb-Sweeping Day, groups of parents tried to gather at the sites of collapsed schools to mourn their children. Plainclothes police officers quickly surrounded them.

Propaganda officials recently ordered Chinese news organizations to only report positive quake-related stories, while the Sichuan government has explicitly prohibited media organizations from reporting on miscarriages by women in temporary housing camps. Some quake survivors fear that the miscarriages may have been caused by high levels of formaldehyde in the prefabricated housing.

“So many pregnant women are having miscarriages,” said Ren, a woman in a camp in Dujiangyan who gave only her surname for fear of government reprisal.

Her grandson was among the hundreds who died at Xinjian Primary School. Her daughter-in-law got pregnant late last year, she said, but had a miscarriage.

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