One year ago today a 7.9 percent magnitude earthquake struck south western China. Today, the parents of children who died in collapsed school buildings are still seeking answers. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from the earthquake zone.
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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Today, China marked the first anniversary of a devastating earthquake. That quake left 88,000 people dead or missing and 5 million homeless. One year later, the government is continuing to fund reconstruction, but that same government is also continuing to stonewall parents who say the death of their children in collapsed school buildings could have been prevented. Those parents say the schools were shoddily built, and they blame the authorities. The World's Mary Kay Magistad went to the earthquake zone and prepared this report.
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: This lone trumpet marked the moment when the earth shook last year when buildings tumbled and thousands died. This was the official ceremony at the epicenter of the quake. A leader with a gift for rhetoric and empathy might have provided a powerful balm toward healing. Chinese President Hu Jintao offered this.
PRESIDENT HU JINTAO: We have tried our best to save the lives, and we have tried our best to minimize the losses.
MAGISTAD: The president did praise the Chinese people's great courageous will, and laid a single white chrysanthemum at the memorial. But he also delivered lines that sounded more like an address to the Party Congress than consolation for the grieving.
PRESIDENT HU JINTAO: Comrades, friends, currently China is faced with the world economic crisis, and is doing our job to safeguard our economic growth. And on our way ahead so we are going to hold high the banner of Deng Xiaoping theory and Three Represents theory.
MAGISTAD: The Gettysburg Address it wasn't. Some survivors feel the government has been similarly tone-deaf to their needs. Parents whose children died in schools say the buildings never should have collapsed. They've sought explanations from the government, but parents such as Cheng Xing Feng say their questions have gone unanswered. Cheng's 17-year-old son died in the Middle School in Beichuan. She says Beichuan Middle School had two buildings and both collapsed in the earthquake. She says everyone knew the old one was unsafe. It had a crack in it since a huge earthquake in 1976 and parents had for years been urging the government to move the classrooms somewhere safer. She says the other middle school building was just nine years old, but it collapsed too, while other buildings around it that were older did not. That was common pattern throughout the quake area. Grieving parents say corrupt officials skimped on building with proper materials so they could pocket the difference. In the days after the earthquake, government investigators were seen looking at the ruins of these schools, bending substandard steel and watching chunks of wall crumble in their hands. But Ministry of Housing official Tang Kai claimed last week that the government hasn't been able to figure out why some buildings collapsed and some didn't.
TANG KAI: Up to now, we haven't found that anybody did anything to make the building vulnerable so that it collapsed and some people died when the earthquake struck. Local governments at the affected areas pay close attention to this issue and they take this issue very seriously.
MAGISTAD: What some local governments have been taking seriously is shutting parents up, and keeping foreign journalists away from them. The Sichuan officials said last week that foreign journalists who interviewed parents were trying to incite unrest. The officials said, "Journalists should just back off and trust the government to deal correctly with these issues." The government says it is now focused on making sure new buildings are built to withstand powerful earthquakes. An impressive number of such buildings have gone up in the past year, but not everywhere. In this rural stretch of Jiangyou County, those without means are building what they can. In the case of migrant worker Li Hua Jun it's a modest three-room brick house with little reinforcement. He says the government gave him the equivalent of $2,600 to build a new house. I asked Li what he could build for that. He laughs and points to a pile of rubble. He says he's had to spend three times what the government gave him to build the most basic of homes, and he says once he's done, he'll have to look for work to replenish his savings. Still, Li says, he, his wife and his 10-year-old son are glad to be alive. Many families weren't so lucky. In Beichuan, in recent days, survivors have gone with flowers and incense and firecrackers to remember their dead, to walk amidst the rubble of the ghost city that used to be their home. Some knelt on the spot where their loved ones died and let their grief carry them away. Many of these people are still aching for answers, answers the government is reluctant to give. It has said it will do better in the future. It will rebuild faster, better and safer. Today, the government asked survivors and the nation to mark a moment, move forward and trust it to do the right thing. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Beichuan, China.