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China Remembers Victims on Anniversary of Deadly Quake

May 15, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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China marked the first anniversary of the fatal earthquake that ravaged the Sichuan province. NPR's Melissa Block was reporting in China when disaster struck and returned a year later to see how some families are faring.

MARGARET WARNER: One year ago this week, a devastating earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province. It left 90,000 people dead or missing, more than 5,000 of them students whose schools and dorms collapsed.

This week, Chinese President Hu Jintao marked the one-year anniversary in a nationally televised memorial service in front of a destroyed school. The quake leveled huge swathes of this rural region and left an estimated 5 million people homeless.

National Public Radio’s Melissa Block had just arrived in Sichuan for a week of reporting before the upcoming Olympic Games. She was in a church in Chengdu when the quake hit.

MELISSA BLOCK, NPR: What’s going on? The whole building is shaking. The whole building is shaking. Oh, my goodness. We’re in the middle of an earthquake?

CHINESE CITIZEN: Earthquake, yes.

MELISSA BLOCK: The whole block is shaking. The top of the church is falling down. The ground is shaking underneath our feet. And all of the people are running out in the street.

MARGARET WARNER: Hers was the first broadcast of the quake to reach the United States.

Block just got back from a return trip to Sichuan to see how the province and its people are faring, and she joins me now.

And welcome back, Melissa.

MELISSA BLOCK: Thank you. Good to be with you.

Reconstructing Sichuan province

MARGARET WARNER: So a year after this devastating quake, what does it look like now?

MELISSA BLOCK: It looks like a country in transition. I mean, Sichuan is a huge province. And huge areas of it, as you mentioned, were destroyed.

And you see -- everywhere you drive around in the countryside, you see people rebuilding their homes. I mean, the pace of reconstruction is incredibly fast.

That said, you also see the remains of what was destroyed everywhere you look, just buildings that are in ruins and people who are still living in the shadow of those buildings. In some cases, they've cobbled together little tents or make-shift shelters.

So it's the juxtaposition of people starting over at the same time living next to a constant reminder of what happened a year ago and the terrible tragedy that so many people lived through.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, if 5 million people were rendered homeless, I mean, do they have sort of displaced people camps, actual camps, or did everyone just have to make do?

MELISSA BLOCK: They did set up very quickly camps. They started out with tent camps, blue tents that were donated. And then, by summertime, people had moved into prefab barracks, these long trailers, and you'd see acres and acres of them wherever you go.

Different provinces in other parts of the country were responsible for different counties that were affected, so each county sort of has a sponsor, and they set up these refugee camps. You call them refugee camps, but they're really displayed people.

And they're crowded. They're hot in the summer. They're cold in the winter. People are living many, many people to a room, very tight quarters, but they're everywhere you go. This is where the vast majority of the displaced people are right now.

Coping with grief

MARGARET WARNER: So you talked to a lot of ordinary people. That was part of the power of your pieces. How would you say they're actually coping emotionally with this a year later?

MELISSA BLOCK: Yes, I mean, I think it's hard to generalize. So many people were affected. I mean, with 5 million people affected, 90,000 people killed, everyone knows someone or many people in their family, probably, who were killed.

I think there's a remarkable amount of resilience among the people whom I met, the ability they have to pick up and go on and rebuild, and, in many cases, start new families. I mean, even families who lost children, lost their only child in many cases, are many of them either thinking about having a child, already pregnant, or have had another child in very short order.

I mean, the sense of -- and this is the mantra, really, that comes down from the government. It's, "Don't wait for the government to do things for you. Pick yourself up. Stiffen your unbowed back. Struggle through adversity and rebuild." And that's what many, many people are doing.

That said, there still is, you know, palpable grief everywhere you turn. And, you know, I've met many people who, when you started asking them about what they lost, would start crying. I mean, it's still very fresh one year later.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, did you revisit people that you had already reported on and covered a year ago?

MELISSA BLOCK: Yes, one of the main interests of mine in going back was to find a particular family whom we had spent a day with two days after the earthquake last year. They were in the process of having crews look through the rubble of their home to find their son, who wasn't quite 2 years old, and his grandparents. And by the end of the very long day that we spent with them, all three had been found, and all three were found dead.

And I've stayed in touch with the family, the boy's aunt over the year, and was able to reconnect with her and hear about how the family is doing.

And it's a mixed story. I mean, they are moving on. They are pregnant and hope to have another child within a month. But at the same time, the level of grief and sadness in that family is really hard to hear.

I mean, the father has deleted pictures of his son from his cell phone and his computer, sort of just unable to talk about what happened, much less talk about what he's lost.

MARGARET WARNER: How are these people making a living?

MELISSA BLOCK: You know, any way they can. I mean, there are some jobs that still exist for people who were working in factories. Maybe they're now doing construction.

You also have people from other parts of China who are experiencing the global economic slowdown who have come home to help on reconstruction. I mean, there is a huge amount of construction work to be had.

But for a lot of people, you know, they were eking out a living in the countryside as it was. If they were farmers, maybe they're still farming and just doing what they can to get by.

It's not easy. They are getting some help from the government to rebuild their homes and to get back on their feet, but it's a struggle.

Parents still seek accountability

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, there were a lot of reports early on about how angry all these parents were who'd lost their children in the schools and that the schools had collapsed when buildings around them didn't, and they were demanding answers about the shoddy construction. Did they ever get the accountability they were seeking?

MELISSA BLOCK: No. And I think that's one of the huge stories that needs to be told and needs to constantly be told about what's going on, that these parents who had every right to have investigations into what happened and were promised an investigation by the central government into why so many schools collapsed, that investigation never happened.

And what you're hearing now from authorities in Sichuan is, "We see no evidence of any buildings that collapsed purely because of shoddy construction," which is completely belied when you travel there and look around and see an area where there was a school where hundreds of children died and next to it are buildings that are perfectly fine.

But there will be no investigation, according to the government. They've had no redress in the courts. Any lawsuits that were filed have been quashed.

The number that you mentioned in the introduction of 5,335 students -- that is now the official tally -- may be accurate, but it's probably low by most estimates. And there's been no accounting per individual school of how many children died at each school, so, so many questions still for these parents.

Activists, journalists intimidated

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of the activists on this cause have said also that they feel that the government is really trying to repress them. One, could you establish that? And two, how freely, one, could you report? And how free did people seem to feel to talk to you?

MELISSA BLOCK: There have been many, many documented cases of parents who have been either threatened or harassed, detained, arrested, monitored. Their phones have been tapped. The ones who have been most active in speaking out about what happened in the schools, that certainly happened, too.

And we were really mindful in trying to find parents to talk to of being careful not to jeopardize our own reporting because there certainly have been many cases of reporters who've been detained or, in the last couple of weeks, reporters who've been roughed up by plainclothes police officers for trying to interview parents.

So it's absolutely happened. We were careful. We tried not to interview -- we didn't interview parents in their home. We didn't interview them in their village.

But I think, you know, it has a dampening effect on reporting, for sure. And the Chinese media have been told, "Don't report on this. Give positive stories on the earthquake and what happened since."

MARGARET WARNER: So I know it's very hard to generalize, as you said, but did you leave there feeling optimistic that people there are looking toward the future with some optimism themselves? Or is the despair -- has the grief turned into despair in a lot of quarters?

MELISSA BLOCK: I think, overall, I would say, more on the optimistic side, but I still think there are just so many layers of grief and the anger that you mentioned that overshadow that.

That said, people are putting their lives back together. That is sort of the order of business from the government. They've said, "We had thought we would rebuild in three years. We're going to rebuild in two years," which means theoretically, by May of next year, one year from now, they're anticipating that Sichuan will be rebuilt.

Are people's lives back to normal? No, I don't think so.

MARGARET WARNER: Melissa Block, NPR, thank you.

MELISSA BLOCK: Thank you, Margaret.