Monday, May 11, 2009

Hope mixes with grief among China's quake survivors

BEICHUAN, China: Gong Guilin lost both his legs in last year's massive Sichuan earthquake. Now he dreams of becoming a Paralympic tennis player.

One year after the quake struck, hope is slowly returning to Gong's life, as it is for millions of other survivors, but for many the will to move on is mixed with a sense of indelible grief.

"I like tennis best, but I play basketball and like riding the bike," Gong, 20, said, showing off his new artificial legs.

"My goal is to go to college. I want to participate in the All China Handicapped Games and then advance to the International Paralympics."

But on the eve of the first anniversary of the quake, the tragedy still haunts the survivors of the 8.0-magnitude quake in this mountainous region in southwest China's Sichuan province.

Nearly 87,000 people were killed or left unaccounted for when the quake struck a region the size of South Korea, in the worst natural disaster in China in over 30 years.

In Beichuan town, the worst hit area where about 20,000 people were killed or reported missing, weeping survivors trickled into the once bustling hub over the weekend to pay respects to their loved ones.

Authorities had largely kept Beichuan town under lock and key due to the vast destruction wreaked by the earthquake, but ahead of the first anniversary thousands of former residents have been allowed to return to mourn their dead.

"I know I must resume my normal life," said Lin Zemao, a teary-eyed 50-year-old farmer who lost his wife and son in the quake, standing in front of the ruins where his son was killed.

"They would want that, but since they left there is really nothing to live for."

For four days since Sunday, survivors have been allowed to return to perform traditional Chinese rites. Most go to the places where they believe their loved ones died. The sound of wailing relatives drifts through the air.

Throughout the devastated and rubble-strewn town, where even the buildings left standing are on the verge of collapse, mourners bow in prayer, burn paper money and incense and set off firecrackers to scare off evil spirits.

"My husband is buried over there," says retired school teacher Liu Huifang, 57, pointing to a pile of rubble and debris.

"On the morning of May 12, he sent me away to the bus station to visit my mother. That was the last time I saw him. After the earthquake, I dared not return. I waited a week for his call, but it never came."

The destruction has been so widespread that the government has decided not to rebuild Beichuan, but instead is planning to turn the town into an earthquake museum.

In the quake zone, those with intact homes and with families are gradually building new lives, but the weakest victims still need help.

Few places have offered more hope than the Hong Kong-funded Stand Tall rehabilitation programme that specialises in artificial limbs and physical therapy at the Sichuan People's Hospital in the provincial capital Chengdu.

"When our patients first came here they were at emotional lows. They had lost hope, but after they saw the facilities and the technology, they quickly improved," Cai Li, vice-head of the hospital told AFP.

"Now they see they have the ability to re-enter society as normal people and they know that we will help them."

The picture is not so bright for the elderly, as many will live out their remaining days in nursing homes set up throughout the region by the International Red Cross Federation and the Chinese Red Cross.

"My three children need to find jobs and take care of themselves, so I must try to take care of myself as well," said Li Guo, a fragile 75-year-old woman at a nursing home in badly damaged Mianzhu city.

She told AFP she now spends her time with other senior citizens, whiling away the time playing cards, chatting and watching television.

"I like living here better than with them because they are never home and leave me by myself anyway."

Francis Markus, spokesman for the International Red Cross, said victims in the quake zone will have needs that must be served for a long time to come.

"For many, the earthquake resulted in tremendous economic pressures with incomes in some families set back by 15 years," he told AFP.

"This has brought more pressure on looking after the elderly and is why the Red Cross must support this kind of home in China."

- AFP/yt

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