Still haunted by the past

Ten years after the massive Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, which claimed almost 70,000 lives, amazing stories of rejuvenation are being told in China. A survivor who had to have a leg amputated went on to become a national team athlete!

By Neha Sahay
  • Published 5.06.18
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Ten years after the massive Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, which claimed almost 70,000 lives, amazing stories of rejuvenation are being told in China. A survivor who had to have a leg amputated went on to become a national team athlete!

Officially, 5,335 children were killed. Given the one-child policy prevalent then, the government, in a humane gesture, allowed these parents, many in their mid-30s, even 40s, to have another child. They were provided the necessary reproductive treatments, resulting in a few lucky ones giving birth to twins.

The China Daily carried a "before-and-after" photo feature on these parents. The mothers, photographed when they were pregnant again, looked sombre and reflective, their faces drawn. The void caused by the loss of their only child was too fresh to be assuaged by the new life they were carrying within them.

In contrast, in the pictures taken some years later, in spite of the parents' obvious middle age, they looked joyous and glowing with their second borns. All the pictures had the photograph of the child who had perished in the earthquake in the background.

However, it's being said that the government didn't keep its promise of funding the schooling of these children.

Some of the survivors have been inspired to give back. Trapped under the debris for 124 hours, a 29-year-old still remembers the hope kindled by the glimpse he got of the fire brigade's orange uniform. Six months after his rescue, he joined the fire brigade. Another, buried under for 30 hours, chose to work as an accountant in the hospital that saved her legs.

The earthquake also brought home the importance of counselling, a discipline that remains comparatively underdeveloped here. Many teachers who experienced the quake retrained as counsellors. One of them has kept her mobile number unchanged in a country where buying a new mobile is like buying a new pair of shoes. She wants to be accessible to her students 24x7, wherever they may be. Even rescue workers have had a tough time coping with the guilt of not having rescued all those who cried out to them for help; some are still on medication.

One of the schools that was flattened into rubble has now been turned into a museum of the earthquake, which draws millions of visitors round the year. Seems like a good idea, till you come to know that underneath it are bodies of school kids who could not be rescued. The ruins of other schools stand as reminders of that terrible day. A little distance away, are the bright lights of the township that replaced the one that was destroyed.

Part of the reason why so many children died was because their schools had been shoddily built. Activists who have tried to pin down those responsible for this have come up against denials, harassment and even jail terms for a few years. Dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, put up an installation in Munich made up of 9,000 student backpacks, Remembering (picture). His efforts to document the names of the dead children yielded 5,219 names, in spite of fierce government opposition to his team of investigators. His blog, which served as the inspiration for this investigation, was taken off the internet.

In a typically insensitive touch, local officials named the 10th anniversary of the earthquake as "Thanksgiving Day". On May 12, as hundreds of parents gathered at the earthquake site, the only sound that could be heard was that of prolonged sobs.