Tears and tributes amid the ruins

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am

Under overcast skies, against a sad, haunting melody, President Hu Jintao yesterday presided over a memorial service on the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, which claimed more than 87,000 lives.

The 30-minute service was held in Yingxiu town at the quake's epicentre and broadcast live on television across the country.

At 2.28 pm - the exact moment when disaster struck the province - a solemn-looking president led a minute's silence and then laid a white chrysanthemum - the traditional mourning symbol - at a commemorative site, followed by other state leaders, foreign ambassadors and representatives of students and rescue workers.

While pledging more efforts for reconstruction and disaster prevention work, Mr Hu described the quake as an event that brought the entire country together and demonstrated the nation's resilient strength.

'During the quake rescue and reconstruction, the whole country has strived with one heart,' Mr Hu said in a low voice in front of a stone carving of a clock showing 2.28.

'The great task of earthquake rescue and recovery reminds us again that unity is strength, that victory can only be gained through struggle.'

In Beichuan, the town worst-hit by the quake, traffic was heavy on narrow mountainous roads leading into the ruins of the old town, as tens of thousands of mourners flocked there to pay their respects to the dead. Police said it was hard to calculate how many people had arrived yesterday, although one official estimated up to 100,000 were walking among the ruins of the town.

At the destroyed Beichuan Middle School, where about 1,300 students and staff died, white and yellow flowers were piling up, white candles burned and incense was lit. Many parents brought pictures of their dead children and pasted notes to a metal fence surrounding the rubble.

There were no protests against authorities recent denial of sloppy school construction. Police and armed soldiers were everywhere inside and near the ruined school, trying hard to stop bereaved parents from airing their grievances to overseas reporters. Mainland media have been strictly prohibited from touching on the topic of 'tofu buildings', considered one of the most politically sensitive issues in the past year. Authorities say claims of shoddy schools are unfounded.

Xie Xinghe, 43, is the father of a 16-year-old killed when his classroom at Beichuan Middle School was reduced to rubble. 'All we want now is justice,' the Beichuan resident said. 'We will keep fighting till the day we find out whether our kids have been killed due to poorly constructed 'tofu buildings'.'

Elsewhere across the quake zone, mourners wept and knelt for their lost ones in the ruins, lit incense, burned paper money and set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits.

Crowds of mourners, most of them young people in white T-shirts, started to gather in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the early afternoon. They chanted 'Go China' slogans, they cried for lost lives and observed a minute's silence when the clock stood at 2.28.

In Shanghai, main streets erupted into a cacophony of car horns at 2.28pm. At a kindergarten in Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, students decorated paper hearts before hanging them from trees in a city park, the China News Service reported.