World News

Quake parents mourn amid crackdown

BEICHUAN, China (Reuters) - Anguished parents on Thursday marked one month since China’s devastating earthquake, demanding answers about flattened schools and begging forgiveness from dead children buried under the rubble.

In a sign of political tensions in the quake-hit area, police expelled volunteers and apparently detained a local dissident who had offered to support the grieving families.

Two dozen parents gathered around concrete shards and twisted steel at what was a Beichuan school, one of many toppled by the quake even as government offices and homes nearby stayed upright. Poor construction work is suspected as a reason for the collapse of the schools.

A mother burned incense, ceremonial funeral money and a pile of her late daughter’s clothes on the rubble mound, while other parents wailed apologies at children crushed under the ruins.

“Your mother is so sorry for this,” cried the middle-aged mother of one girl, Chen Ya. “No. It was me. I’m so sorry,” said Chen’s grandmother.

The parents’ laments jarred with government efforts to pass the one-month date without major ceremony, focusing instead on rebuilding and messages of determined patriotic unity.

Few families in hard-hit parts of Sichuan province in the nation’s southwest escaped losses among those killed in the May 12 quake -- close to 70,000 according to the latest count, with many thousands missing and likely dead.

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But the thousands of crushed children have become the most politically charged legacy of the disaster, distilling public anger about corruption and lax regulation blamed for shoddy school buildings.

“They said this building was strong and quake-proof, but when we saw it, the concrete was like talcum powder and the steel was as thin as noodles,” said Mu Qibing, whose 17-year-old son was killed along with some 1,200 other pupils.

Police later moved in to heavily restrict access to the area but did not clash with a crowd of parents, locals said.

In the night, the parents met local officials who heard their demands for an inquiry into the collapsed building and complaints about a memorial plaque the parents said police had pulled down a day after they put in on a nearby hillside.

“We want justice for the children who perished,” said one of them, Chen Yanhuai, a father whose son died in the school. “We don’t understand why they treat us like the criminals when we are the victims.”

The ruins of another school at Juyuan were also guarded by dozens of police, and the town 50 km (30 miles) from the province capital, Chengdu, was blocked by checkpoints.

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A planned memorial by parents of hundreds of children who died there was prevented by police who went door to door warning them to stay away, several parents said.

At a flattened school in Wufu, where 270 children died, about 80 parents held a brief memorial ceremony, some of them said.

“We gathered to remember our children and to pressure the government for answers,” said one of those parents, Shang Jun, whose son, Shang Xingping, died in the quake.

Slideshow ( 16 images )


China has been seeking to present an image of determined patriotic stability in the face of the disaster. And in a sign of the political tensions around the grieving parents, authorities detained a Sichuan dissident, according to people close to him.

Huang Qi, who lives in Chengdu and runs a Web site critical of the ruling Communist Party’s restrictions on political rights, was bundled into a car on Tuesday night, said a local lawyer who only gave her surname, Xu, citing friends who were with Huang.

“We believe Huang Qi was detained by state security in part for offering support and publicity for the families of the children who perished and other victims,” Zhang Guoting, a supporter of Huang who lives in Copenhagen, said by telephone.

Calls to the Sichuan police headquarters late on Thursday were not answered. Huang was previously jailed on political subversion charges.

About 20 volunteers offering to help the grieving families in Beichuan were expelled from there on Thursday, and one said police feared they would “stir up trouble”.

“We came to offer non-political help, purely to help the disaster victims,” said one of the volunteers, Chen Dapeng, a Beijing-based author. “But police told us to leave because they fear outsiders could stir up incidents around the memorial day.”

Editing by Caroline Drees