China quake: one year on, still rebuilding

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The lucky ones: Xiao Shuhua and his wife stand by their new home in Pingqiao, China. The couple received a government grant and a low interest loan towards their new home, yet still had to use all their savings to build it.
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    A temporary home is seen in Jingu, China. Few of the people left homeless by last year's quake have yet moved into permanent new housing. Contractors are working to hit an ambitious official deadline – that all earthquake victims be re-housed by the second anniversary of the quake, May 12, 2010.
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    An artist's impression of what the town of Chenjiaba, China, will look like when it is completed. Residents are currently living in one-room-per family temporary barracks.
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    Xiao Xianggui shows off murals decorating the walls of homes built with the help of Singaporean benefactors. Mr. Xiao explains the local legends that inspired the murals on all the village's walls. "We have the nicest houses of anyone around," he boasted. "We are really lucky."
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    Dong Jian transports bricks to the two story home he is building with the help of neighbors in Jingu, China. "We have no money left now," Jian said. "Without the earthquake we would not have been in such a hurry to build a new house."
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"Welcome to our disaster zone," says Dong Jian with a wry smile as he stands in the playground of the village school here – transformed since last year's earthquake into Spartan living quarters for survivors.

Nearly 12 months on, aftershocks still tremble regularly in this remote spot, hemmed in by forested mountains. But the temblors are small enough, or perhaps Mr. Dong has become accustomed enough, that he is building himself a new family home.

So are several hundred thousand other peasant farmers the length and breadth of the earthquake zone. Where the roads in this region were blocked a year ago by piles of rubble, today they are often obstructed by piles of new bricks, heaps of sand and cement, or stacks of re-bar

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On larger construction sites around the province, government contractors are racing against the ambitious official deadline – that all earthquake victims should be re-housed by the second anniversary of the quake, May 12, 2010.

"We are very close to victory," claims Sun Ming, deputy director of the construction committee in the provincial capital, Chengdu.

That optimism masks the enormous range of circumstances in which earthquake survivors are living one year after they fled their homes just after lunch on May 12, 2008, when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake killed almost 90,000 people and forced 15 million to sleep in the streets.

Depending on the efficiency of their local government, their location, and their personal circumstances, they could still be cramped into an emergency tent protected by a makeshift shell of thin plywood. They could be making do in a barracks-like temporary housing camp, as well over one million residents are currently doing. Or they could be enjoying the comforts of a brand new bungalow with a biogas-fueled stove.

In this farming village overlooking the Du Ba river, Dong is one of several residents rebuilding his home with the help of a 19,000 RMB ($2,794) grant from the government, a 50,000 RMB ($7,350) low-interest bank loan, and another 50,000 RMB ($7,350) in loans from relatives, in what appears to be a typical pattern of funding across the quake zone.

His home will be larger, more comfortable, and stronger than the house in which he lived before with his father, wife, and child. But he sees no silver lining in the earthquake.

"We have no money left now," he points out. "Without the earthquake we would not have been in such a hurry to build a new house."

Depending on donations

Those of his neighbors with no money in the first place are even worse off. Shi Peifu, an unemployed former soldier, says he is helpless to repair his leaky home, where the walls have grown moldy, without savings or help from relatives.

"I hope we will somehow save some money this year and rebuild next year," explains his wife, Ge Huashui. In the meantime, she and her husband sleep in the same tent that emergency relief workers gave them a year ago.

For the first six months after the earthquake, the government gave all those who had lost their homes a small stipend. Since the beginning of this year, however, they have been on their own.

"We can't all rely on the government," says Dong gamely. "They are under heavy pressure and have a big burden already. We can only rely on ourselves."

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).

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."

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