Tourists inundate worst-hit area to pay their respects

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

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the ruined Beichuan town's 'old town' area on the first anniversary of the magnitude-8 Sichuan earthquake while victims in other quake-ravaged areas also mourned their devastating losses.

Hundreds of buses, cars and motorbikes began to pack the only road leading to the old town, one of the worst-hit regions of Beichuan county, from early yesterday morning.

The traffic got even worse in the afternoon, when more people tried to get into Beichuan, which has been cordoned off for most of the past year, while others who had finished their memorial visits wanted to leave the flattened area.

Apart from Beichuan residents who came to mourn their lost relatives, the majority of visitors yesterday appeared to be tourists from neighbouring cities and counties who wanted to pay their respects and snap photos of the ruins.

There was no organised protest by parents who lost their children at Beichuan Middle School, as previously rumoured. Security had been tightened to the extreme.

Police, armed soldiers and plain-clothes officers who were everywhere inside and near the ruined school, stopped attempts by bereaved parents to air their grievances to overseas reporters.

The mainland media has been strictly prohibited from touching on the topic of 'tofu', or shoddily built, buildings' - deemed one of the most politically sensitive issues of the past year. Authorities have insisted that the allegations were unfounded.

But hundreds of parents and relatives still managed to gather at the ruins of the school, where more than half of the 2,850 students were killed, and make a joint appeal to the central government for an investigation into the quality of the school buildings.

'Compensation is nothing compared with justice,' said Mu Yongxian , 43, a villager from Qushan town in Beichuan county. 'I told my 17-year-old daughter today in front of the rubble of Beichuan Middle School, where she was killed, that I would never give up the fight for justice; otherwise, I would be an incompetent father,' he said.

Xie Xinghe, 43, father of a 16-year-old boy who was killed in the quake, was among a few hundred parents at the school at 2.28pm, the exact time when the quake hit a year ago, with photos of their children, incense and firecrackers.

'We also want local authorities to set up a monument commemorating our children at the ruins of the school and let the ashes of our kids be buried under it,' he said.

A high alert was apparently posted by authorities against any protests or organised activities. It came after angry parents partly disrupted a visit by President Hu Jintao to the site of Beichuan's new middle school on Monday, where a ground-breaking ceremony for the 200 million yuan (HK$228 million) project was held yesterday.

Mr Hu hosted a solemn ceremony yesterday in Yingxiu, the epicentre, which was closed to outsiders and was under tight security.

In Jinhua town, under Mianzhu's jurisdiction, villagers mourned the anniversary but also complained that they have been largely forgotten.

'We were almost isolated after the quake when the road leading to the outside was severely damaged,' said Liu Fawu, a villager. 'It looks impossible to get the reconstruction work done within three years.'