QIONGKUER QIAKE, China, Feb 28 (Reuters) - A group of schoolchildren kick up the dust while they play outside a makeshift classroom surrounded by blue, army-issue relief tents.
Their homes and school were destroyed or badly damaged in Monday's powerful earthquake in China's predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, which officials say killed 268.
But their innocent play belies a deep sense of grief felt by survivors encamped outside the now ruined desert town of Qiongkuer Qiake in China's far west, where almost all the victims died.
As schools struggled to get back to normal, children spoke of the friends they had lost.
"Three students in my class were killed, I can't remember my feeling when the earthquake struck," said one student.
Teachers retrieved dozens of school text books and exercise books from the rubble of the school building. Children picked out their own, leaving behind the unclaimed belongings of friends who would never be returning.
The parents of Qiongkuer Qiake are finding it hard to move on and the fear of more aftershocks seems to paralyse any desire to begin rebuilding.
Tears streamed down the face of a peasant woman standing idle, flanked by two young sons on the desert outskirts of Qiongkuer Qiake.
She watched two older daughters use spades to separate bricks from the mud and straw that failed to hold thousands of homes together.
Yasheng, a 25-year-old minibus driver, showed little will to rebuild, still consumed by memories of Monday's 6.8 magnitude quake. He stood atop a mountain of crushed brick walls and vine roofs telling how his mother had been trapped underneath.
"Pulled her out," said the Uighur-speaking Yasheng in broken Mandarin mixed with a jumble of gestures and a solitary tear. "In hospital...after that we don't know...We don't know."
He estimated 120 people had died on his street alone, leading reporters past another gate onto another heap of debris. "Here, three dead."
FEAR OF DISEASE
Convoys of small tractors, Muslim Uighur volunteers hanging off them, stopped to help neighbours clear rubble and rewire power lines on the outskirts of Qiongkuer Qiake.
More than 4,000 people were injured -- half of them seriously -- in the earthquake that destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and left thousands of people living outside in near-zero temperatures in tents provided by relief workers.
Health officials fear epidemics could spread among survivors sleeping outside in such cold weather.
Government efforts to restore electricity were slowed by fears of sparking fires from buried wires, state television said.
And parched town dwellers had to walk as far as three km (two miles) into surrounding fields for water because of damage to pipes. Some dunked metal pails in bogs.
China's Centre for Disease Prevention and Control sent experts to reinforce medical staff sterilising drinking water and administering tetanus shots, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Despite the mid-week arrival of a dozen trucks stacked with tents and the distribution of second-hand clothes, Uighurs vented frustration at relief efforts by the Communist government, dominated by China's ethnic Han majority.
Elsewhere, Muslim prayers went on uninterrupted in the aftermath of the quake in Qiongkuer Qiake. Except the mosques were gone.
On a sandy hill outside the town, 12 men congregated to pray at the remains of a mosque.
They lined up where a wall once stood and prostrated themselves on the ground, pressing their faces to the earth.
Chanting in a low hush, they knelt by brick grave mounds, including several new ones padded with fresh mud.
Three men toiled knee-deep in a bog down the hill, mixing hay with thick wet mud. A Mandarin interpreter asked if the local mortar would go toward rebuilding the mosque.
"No," said one of the men. "It is to seal the graves."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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