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A year on, China quake survivors face uncertain future

world Updated: May 08, 2009 11:01 IST
Chris Buckley
Chris Buckley
Reuters
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A massive earthquake toppled Huang Liangju's house a year ago, and she still winces when the hills shudder above her makeshift shelter of planks and plastic sheets.

But after one recent aftershock, one of the many that keep rattling China's southwest Sichuan province, Huang said she and other survivors could not dwell on the past as the anniversary of the May 12 calamity neared. Their uncertain future was enough to worry about.

She recalled her panic when the quake hit, flattening parts of Sichuan and killing more than 80,000 people.

"There was a roaring, whooshing sound, and the sky turned grey and the sound -- like you'd let off a million firecrackers," said Huang, a solidly built woman with two children.

"It's scary here, especially when it rains ... We must move, but I don't know how I'll build a new house. We just don't have the money."

In the weeks after the earthquake, the chronic strains in Chinese society dissolved in a surge of patriotic goodwill.

But the divisions between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, have returned, distilled into worries over homes, money and fairness felt sharply in Huang's village, Xihe, in Chenjiaba, a bamboo-lined valley close to the worst destruction.

About 40 of Xihe's 700 residents died in the quake and much of the hillside is too unstable to live on, said village Communist Party chief Chen Yong. But many villagers worry that new housing and more certain lives could lie beyond their
grasp.

"We don't know what will happen, where we will move, how we will live," said Chen Shiyong, a middle-aged woman living down the road in another part of Xihe village. She said she lost a brother and his wife and a nephew in the disaster.

"It's better for people who didn't lose anyone," she said. "But there aren't many around here."

Across Beichuan, the county that includes Chenjiaba, 20,000 of the 160,000 people died in the quake or remain missing, and some families number their kin who died in the dozens.

The government has launched a rebuilding programme but the destruction was vast, and in the wait for relief, some survivors have made angry claims about corruption, favouritism or delays.

"The officials give all the money to those they know and we're always left behind," said Chen Shiyong.

MILLIONS HOMELESS
Rebuilding the shattered homes and infrastructure left by the quake would be a test for any government. Officials have said 4.8 million people lost their homes because of the quake.

Francis Markus, the China spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said his organisation likened the magnitude of the task to rebuilding Los Angeles or Osaka.

But China's ruling Communist Party takes pride in its huge engineering feats, and it has sought to make post-quake reconstruction a showcase of its strength and principles.

The government has promised 1 trillion yuan ($147 billion) of its two-year stimulus spending boost for post-quake rebuilding. It offers building subsidies of between 16,000 and 26,000 yuan for homes, based on family size and hardship, and loans of 50,000 yuan that are first interest-free and then low-interest.

But building a house costs somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 yuan or more, depending on location and the cost of bricks and cement, according to locals.

Residents were grateful for the support offered. But often their thanks came with inquiries about when they can get the money so they can escape their foam-panel huts or wet tents before the next winter.

"Some can afford that, but it's going to be really hard for others. You need to have savings or you're stuck," said Fu Gongxun, nursing his two-year-old son on the porch of his cracked but intact home.

Officials have said the Xihe villagers must move to safer housing, which should be ready by September, said Chen, the village secretary.

"We can just about manage to pay for a home, but I almost killed myself to make that kind of money," said Fu, adding that before the quake he had earned 4,000 yuan or more a month as a coal miner, one of the country's deadliest jobs.

Other families here said they earned that much in a year, and that their richer relatives, busy building homes themselves, often could not afford to loan the money.

There are no official public estimates of how many quake survivors cannot afford to move.

Bryan Withall, who works for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on post-quake rebuilding, estimated that in the area of Sichuan he knew best, Mianzhu, "there's perhaps 20 percent of the population that is scraping the bottom and may need further help".

Officials hope to avoid leaving many hundreds of thousands of quake survivors cold and restless in temporary dwellings for another winter. But old people in Xihe worry they will not be able to move in with their children into cramped new homes.

"I don't want to become a burden on my children, but it looks like that's what I am," said Fu Chenghuo, a 67-year-old stripping bamboo twigs to make brooms. "Maybe I'll just stay here."