China's grieving quake parents start to voice anger

JUYUAN, China (Reuters) - Zhao Deqin keeps a kerbside memorial to her twin daughters killed when their school collapsed in China’s earthquake, and a petition-signing site alongside that has become a focus of protest by grieving parents.

Earthquake survivor, Zhao Deqian, the mother of twins Zhao Yajia and Zhao Yaqi, 15, who were killed when their school building collapsed in the earthquake, cries at their memorial altar in the town of Juyuan in the quake-hit area of Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, May 20, 2008. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

The most lamented victims of the quake that shattered parts of Sichuan province in southwest China eight days ago have been the thousands of children killed when school buildings collapsed.

The fragility of schools that crumpled into bloody piles has aroused widespread claims that corruption had fatally compromised building strength. Now Zhao and many other parents left grieving by one notorious collapse, at Juyuan town, have launched meetings and petitions to demand redress.

As the ruling Communist Party seeks to maintain a staunch front of unity and stability after the quake, the incipient protests by parents could be troublesome, for many of them blame official graft and laxity, more than nature, for the deaths.

“We want a memorial day for the children, but we also want criminal prosecution of those responsible, no matter who they are,” said Zhao, 44, as she lit incense on the shrine featuring a photo of her two girls clutching a Snoopy doll.

“How come all the houses didn’t fall down, but the school did? And how come that happened in so many places?”

The memorial down a quake-battered alley in this small town also displayed fruit, white paper mourning flowers, and a small bag of powdery concrete taken from the school.

“This will be evidence at a trial. This is what killed them,” said Zhao, tapping the bag. Her ruined shop stood behind the shrine.

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Hundreds of grieving parents in Juyuan have met and circulated petitions demanding an annual memorial day for their dead children, punishment of officials or builders responsible for shoddy schools, and compensation, Zhao and others said.

Zhao’s 15-year-old daughters, Yajia and Yaqi, attended Juyuan Middle School and were in a six-level building of classrooms that collapsed, killing some 500 or more of the school’s 1,300 pupils.

The quake struck in mid-afternoon, when many children were at their desks. Dozens of other schools also collapsed, quite a few while neighboring buildings stayed upright and relatively safe.

China held a memorial day for victims of the quake on Monday, and officials have promised no mercy for anyone found responsible for shoddy school buildings.

On Tuesday, dozens of parents whose children were killed in the Juyuan school collapse said that was not enough.

They had gathered to put signatures and red-inked thumb prints on what seemed to be one of several circulating draft petitions, expressing demands that had yet to be finalized.

Asked what they wanted most, nearly all said they sought official recognition that the children’s deaths were due to more than random natural destruction.

“This was a tofu dregs project and the government should assume responsibility,” said Pu Changxue, whose son Pu Tong died crushed in a classroom. Pu was referring to the messy remnants left over when making tofu, or beancurd, a common Chinese term for shoddy workmanship and poor materials.

“We all know that earthquakes are natural disasters. But what happened to our children also has human causes, and they’re even more frightening,” he said.

Families said they had also gone to the town government, but officials have begged for patience while they cope with the emergency demands of the massive quake.

Other residents watched the gathered parents, voicing sympathy. Many said they knew Zhao’s twins -- lively, attractive girls who seemed destined for show business.

“To think that I lived and they died,” said an old woman living opposite Zhao’s shrine. “That is just too unfair.”

(Editing by Roger Crabb); +86 13501014479