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China quake: one year on, still rebuilding

Survivors make do with plywood, donations, and stoicism. Some enjoy new homes.

(Page 2 of 2)

And on the generosity of outsiders. Last month a group of Taiwanese Christians stopped by with hundreds of pairs of spectacles from which the older villagers chose the ones that fitted best. Japanese volunteers delivered food and overcoats last autumn. And a wealthy hotelier from a nearby city once gave every family here 1,000 RMB ($150).

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Plywood and an extinguisher

A few miles down river, in the county town of Chenjiaba, Ge Huaxue complains that all she has received from the authorities are a few sheets of flimsy plywood with which to build her own shack, and a fire extinguisher in case it bursts into flames.

There is not enough room for everybody who wants a place in the comparative comfort of the blue tin-roofed temporary camps, explains the county's deputy governor, Wu Zhangjin. In the mountainous topography "we just don't have a safe enough, wide enough, and long enough place to build the houses we need," he says.

Indeed, things are about to get worse for the 3,000 people who had been fortunate enough to get a room in the camp. Their barracks were erected on the only buildable land in the vicinity: Next week everybody is being moved back into tents on a nearby mountainside, while their permanent homes are built where the camp is now.

We have convinced people to overcome their difficulties and move out," says Mr. Wu. "Ordinary people are very strong in the face of adverse circumstance. Their ability to survive is amazing."

For some, spanking new homes

Much better placed is Xiao Xinqing, a vivacious young woman living with her young son in a camp outside the city of Mianzhu, where she has found work selling insurance. She has been promised an apartment in a block now under frenzied construction in the nearby city of Hanwang, a world away from the mountain hamlet where she once farmed a tiny plot.

Already ensconced in his new home, Xiao Xianggui proudly shows a visitor around the spanking new compound where government architects and Singaporean benefactors helped 42 families build model dwellings where their old houses had once stood in Yongquan village.

Mr. Xiao explains the local legends that inspired the murals on all the village's walls, and the biogas digester that provides cooking fuel. "We have the nicest houses of anyone around," he boasts. "We are really lucky."

Very few enjoy such comforts yet in Sichuan's earthquake zone, and many will likely never be able to afford them even if they are offered.

Stoicism as safety net

As the government tries to persuade millions of victims to put up with hardship for another year, however, officials can count on more than the fatalistic attitude that Chinese peasant farmers often display, or on their low expectations. The authorities are also buoyed by the remarkable stoicism and determination to face the future that emerges from scores of interviews with survivors.

"I come up here about once a week or so," says Xiao Xinqing, as she gravely contemplates the massive stone-walled tumulus on a hillside above Hanwang where some 8,000 people are buried in a mass grave.

"I didn't lose any relatives in the earthquake, but life has been hard since then anyway," she explains. "When I come here I remember that no matter how hard life is, at least I am still alive."