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Quake Survivors Fight to Get on with Life

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The enterprising Hanwang people are rebuilding their lives since last year's earthquake.

Hanwang's clock tower stands frozen at 2:28 PM -- the moment the May 12 earthquake struck -- but times are changing for those who live in its shadow in Sichuan Province's Mianzhu City. The clock has become an eternal icon of the 8.0-magnitude quake that claimed nearly 5,000 lives in the town and more than 70,000 region-wide a year ago.

People from all over the world gathered there to commemorate those who died when Hanwang shuddered and its buildings fell down. Propped up next to the tower is a wreath of flowers honoring the dead.

Survivors in the town are doing whatever they can to recover. A few dozen meters away, Zhu Ruiyu runs a stall selling "quake souvenirs", including small bronze statues of the clock tower. "I saw some other people selling them and realized there was a demand and I could sell them, too," she says. "It's a way to help outsiders understand and commemorate those who died."

Zhu says she was left with only 50 yuan (US$7.3) after her family's apartment building and silk shop collapsed. The family used the money to invest in quake-related merchandise, such as books, DVDs and calendars. "Our four-story building collapsed in seconds. I ran outside because we lived on the first floor," Zhu says. "I went back to our old house and rummaged for something to sell. All we could find was some food, so we sold that."

The government is building her a new house but she hasn't seen it yet. "What's most important is my whole family is safe," she says.

For 72-year-old He Baiyuan, the loss has been far more traumatic: his first son, a local school teacher, and 8-year-old grandson. Seated on a wooden chair in front of his drooping apartment building on the other side of the clock tower, he says: "I cry every night when I think of them."

The old man's eyes tear up as he recalls the day of the quake. "They both died when the school collapsed," he says, waving his hand at the crag behind his block. "Five days after the earthquake we went to the school to dig for their bodies. We buried them behind the mountain."

He moved back into the splintered structure after burglars stole some of the belongings he couldn't fit into his temporary house. "I'm here all day, every day," He says. "I can't leave. I have to protect our property." He is keen to move into a new house but doesn't know when that will happen.

"I hope the government will solve our problems soon. This isn't a safe house and if there's another strong aftershock, it could also fall."

He has good reason to worry - the building sank half a meter after the quake. His family has also had to grapple with job losses since the quake. His three surviving sons were employed at the Dongfangqilun machinery plant but now work in construction.

Three tourist buses pull up in front of his house but elicit no response. "There are a lot of tourists, especially at the weekend. We even had some from Canada but I have no feelings about them; we're all used to it," he says. "At night, though, almost everyone leaves and the place is like a ghost town."

Down the road is Hanwang's police station -- or what is left of it. It is now an empty concrete husk surrounded by snarls of iron rod and concrete slabs. Police now man a new booth nearby.

An entire street has been sealed off, because some buildings are in grave danger of collapsing. A sign reads: "Please walk gently and speak softly to give peace to the dead." Police say there are still bodies buried in the concrete.

Across the street, Zhang and her husband operate another quake souvenir shop. "Before the quake, we sold cigarettes and drinks part time, and worked in the factory full time. After the quake, a lot of tourists came and asked where they could get more information about the quake, so we started carrying this merchandise," she says, pointing at a cardboard box of DVDs priced at 20 yuan apiece.

"But business is just so-so."

A car-load of tourists from Chengdu, the provincial capital, stops in front of her stand.

"We wanted to come here to understand exactly what happened in Hanwang, see how people are recovering and pay our respects to those who have died and suffered," 34-year-old Liu Jie says. "It's like another world. I could not have understood this without seeing it."

The road leading to Mianzhu is lined with makeshift hovels serving as temporary houses. Walls are fashioned from doors, doors are fashioned from walls and ceilings are corrugated steel sheets.

In front of the community hangs a red banner reading: "To rebuild our homes and clean our streets, everyone must join the effort."

Meng Youfu's extended family of 13 has lived in three of these "dwellings" since the quake. "We built this temporary house from the ruins of our old home and with some help from the government. It's not a very good place to live," Meng says. "But we'll move into our new house at the end of December. That's great news for us; it gives us hope."

The new house won't cost them anything because they struck a deal with the government, swapping the land on which their old house crumpled for a new home with 30 sq m of space for every family member. "Life has gotten a lot better since the quake and this year's a lot better than the last," Meng says. "Now, there's a lot of construction going on, so we can get jobs."

Out of town stand rows of buildings that look like concrete filing cabinets stripped of their doors and emptied of their contents.

Li Guofeng, 53, runs a seed shop in one of these fractured and otherwise deserted buildings. Cracks zigzag along the walls of her store. "We rented this space before the quake and business was good. We still have the license, so I'm going to make use of it," she says. "I'm not afraid. I was doing business here when the quake happened and I just ran out. I do the same thing when there are strong aftershocks."

Her daughter runs another branch of the shop in Mianzhu's Huaqiao. "We make just enough to live off." She says the government is building her family a new house that they will move into before the end of the year. They plan to run their store out of it.

Other businesses nearby have names like "Quake Shop", "Quake Bus Stop" and "Quake Bank". Further along the main road toward Mianzhu loom several green burlap-mantled buildings encased in scaffolding -- Hanwang New Town.

Once these apartments are completed, residents lingering in the old town will move into their new homes and their new lives. The clock at Hanwang has not budged an inch since last May 12. Life, however, tells a different story.

(China Daily May 25, 2009)

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