x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Life still grim for quake survivors

Two months after the May earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people in China, the five million it left homeless struggle to rebuild their lives.

Li Yuan Feng, centre, and eight family members, homeless after the earthquake in Sichuan, have been allocated a 16 square metre house.
Li Yuan Feng, centre, and eight family members, homeless after the earthquake in Sichuan, have been allocated a 16 square metre house.

DUJIANGYAN, CHINA // Far from the Olympic preparations in Beijing, 55-year-old Huang Tian Gui pulls on a street-sweeper's fluorescent vest as he gazes at a black and white photograph of a handsome young man. His only son, Huang Tao, 22, was inside the family's apartment in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck on May 12, flattening the block and crushing him to death.

But Huang Tian Gui and his wife Wang Li, 48, cannot afford to sit and grieve. Formerly cleaners, the couple have been unemployed since the quake and must go out to look for odd jobs. On Monday, the Chinese government said it would allow parents whose only child had been killed or severely injured or disabled in the earthquake to have a second child, but Mr Huang said it was too late for him and his wife.

"We followed China's one-child policy. Now we are too old to have any more children and even if we could, we wouldn't be able to afford it. We can't even support ourselves." Two months after the May earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people, the five million it left homeless are struggling to rebuild their lives. About 1.4 million Chinese in remote rural communities have been plunged back into absolute poverty, which means they cannot afford food, clothing and shelter, according to a Chinese government report, released July 15.

"In many counties, the hard-won anti-poverty achievements in the previous two decades disappeared within seconds," Fan Xiaojian, head of the central government's poverty alleviation office, told the China Daily newspaper as the report was released. In towns such as Dujiangyan, temporary housing is being built at speed - the Chinese authorities have set a deadline of Aug 1 to move the thousands of people in the town still under canvas, but there are still many living in tents.

Mr Huang and his wife were among the first to move into Qing Jian Ren Jia - which translates as "thrifty people". The community is built of long, white and blue single-storey prefabricated barracks that when full will house 14,000 people for an estimated three years while new homes are built. The homes have electricity, but not water or gas, and six homes must share kitchens and bathrooms. Front doors are left wide open and residents sit in the doorways fanning themselves in the summer heat.

"It's much better than the tents here - but my problem is that I need a job," said Yang Li Xiong, a 31-year-old masseuse whose 21-year-old niece was crushed along with a friend when her block of flats collapsed. About half of the 5,000 residents of working age are unemployed, the settlement's employment office said. But authorities have had some success in attracting companies from places such as Shanghai to recruit from the community.

Residents of Qing Jian Ren Jia should receive 300 yuan (Dh160) a month from the Chinese government, but many are still waiting for July's payment, said Zhang Liu Shu, 50, sitting in a makeshift restaurant on the street outside the settlement gates. The payments are supposed to continue until mid-August, but residents fear the government will start asking them to pay rent. "Everyone is talking about this. If it happens we will not be able to bear it," Mr Zhang said.

Despite the threat of poverty, most people are upbeat. The residents of one street are so neighbourly that their row has been dubbed Harmony Alley. Over on the other side of Dujiangyan, the 1,200 people in the Wen Xing Jia Yuan camp - which translates as "cosy home" - cannot wait to move out of their tents, where temperatures can rise past 40C on a hot day. But not everyone is happy with the arrangements.

The Longs have just been told that all nine members of their family, spanning three generations, will have to squeeze into one 16 square metre house. "There won't even be enough space to put in all the beds. I haven't slept for three days for worrying about it," said Li Yuan Fang, 60, the grandmother in the Long family. For some, even the prefabricated homes are a dream unlikely to come true. The government has said that only those who owned their homes would be able to get one of the newly built shelters.

For others, the struggle is not about money or shelter but what they see as justice. Although Dujiangyan was not near the earthquake's epicentre, hundreds of children died there when two schools collapsed - and parents blame corrupt deals between local Communist Party officials and building contractors. Relatives of the dead children said parents were being intimidated by authorities not to make a fuss. Protests at Dujiangyan's courtroom and outside the remains of one of the schools were broken up by police. Huang Qi, a human-rights activist campaigning on the parents' behalf, was arrested in June.

"Every day, two or three party officials come here to pressurise my son into signing a declaration that the school collapse was just a natural disaster and no one is to blame," said one man whose 11-year-old grandson died at Xin Jian Middle School in Dujiangyan and who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals. "My son has been sleeping here because his house was also destroyed in the earthquake - but he has had to go elsewhere just to avoid the officials. He hasn't signed. Why did the schools fall down but not the buildings next to them? There must be something ugly behind that," said the grandfather.

Some parents in the quake zone told The New York Times the government was offering them "hush money" of about 60,000 yuan (Dh32,300) plus a pension per parent of about 38,000 yuan not to make a fuss and added most of the parents were giving in to the pressure and signing the deal. * The National To find out how to help victims of the China earthquake, visit sichuan-quake-relief.org