China scrambles to build homes for quake survivors

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By Ian Ransom

BEIJING, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Six months after China's Sichuan earthquake, local authorities are scrambling to build housing for millions made homeless as winter approaches.

In the the hard-hit city of Dujiangyan, scores of police blocked grieving parents from mourning their dead children at the primary school where they were entombed when the devastating quake struck on May 12.

"Today is a commemorative day, many families wanted to come to this school to burn paper for their children," a woman surnamed Yan told Reuters by telephone.

Yan, who stood outside Xinjian primary school, where parents believe more than 200 children died, said police were preventing the parents from burning the joss paper Chinese traditionally use to commemorate their dead.

"Now there are many police here. They do not want us to speak out of step," said Yan, who lost a child in the rubble.

The Sichuan quake killed more than 80,000 people. Many were children who had been napping or at their desks in poorly built schools that crumbled while other buildings nearby stood firm.

China vowed to punish those responsible after aggrieved parents blamed their children's deaths on substandard construction stemming from corruption and greed.

No prosecutions have been reported and parents have been pressured into dropping their complaints.

Local authorities in Dujiangyan have tired of Yan's complaints and detained her and her husband for weeks at a time.

"They never give any reason, just to say that they will not let us petition or file a lawsuit. They also said: You are just blades of grass, we can tread on you at any time."


China last week announced a mammoth 1 trillion yuan ($146.4 billion) package to rebuild ravaged infrastructure and industry in 51 of the hardest-hit counties, and has pledged to provide basic health care and housing for the millions of people made homeless before winter sets in.

Most of the survivors continue to live in temporary housing.

The programme would be aimed at making "basic living standards and economic development match or exceed pre-quake levels," within three years, local media said, citing the country's top planning agency.

The money is unlikely to comfort the parents.

"The government has paid us compensation of a few tens of thousands of yuan per child," said Li Ou, whose daughter died in the school on her eighth birthday.

"In reality, 500,000 or a million yuan can't bring back our children."

Li said his daughter's building had crumbled to the ground as some of the school's other buildings remained intact.

"We found out that this building was designated unsafe in '99, and needed to be fixed. It had not been by the time the quake hit," Li said.

Parents remain suspicious of the media, who promised reports that never made the news or the newspapers.

After initially tolerating reporters in the aftermath of the the quake, authorities slammed the door shut on local media coverage weeks after, as the image of angry parents threatened to overshadow the official story of heroic rescue workers rushing to save victims.

The children that died at Jianxin were the sons and daughters of poor migrant workers, said Li.

"These high officials live in luxury and can't understand our feelings. I believe Premier Wen and the national government is good, it is only the local government that has problems," he said.

(Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Valerie Lee)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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