Blank faces return to school amid the prayers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am

'We have confidence, we have hope. We will give all our love to you,' schoolchildren from the No 3 Yushu Primary School sang, with blank, unsmiling faces.

Yesterday was their first day back at school since the powerful earthquake struck Yushu county in Qinghai last Wednesday.

On the other side of their tent classrooms, hundreds of crimson-robed monks from Sichuan stood in a crescent formation, humming and chanting to make amends for the sins of a row of bodies wrapped in blankets - as they had done for the previous three days.

The hundreds of cold, hungry and distraught children, some of whom have lost both parents, lacked enough food, books and stationery as they resumed school amid the mourning - and when they went 'home', they would be sleeping outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.

School principals argued that grieving students, who had seen their parents' bodies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings, needed time to recover from the disaster, but Beijing ordered all schools, including the 20 that collapsed or were badly damaged in the worst-hit township of Jiegu, to reopen by the end of the month.

Deputy Education Minister Lu Xin , who inspected six primary and secondary schools in Yushu last week, told headmasters to 'resume classes with all speed, as the State Council required', his ministry's website said.

Qinghai's quake rescue headquarters yesterday updated the death toll to 1,944, with 216 missing and 12,135 injured - much higher than initial estimations.

On Friday, Qinghai propaganda authorities said 103 students and 12 teachers had been killed, but principals and rescued students gave much higher casualty figures. Authorities from Yushu said yesterday they had stopped updating the number of dead schoolchildren and teachers.

At the No 3 Primary School, hundreds of students gathered in the playground while Tibetan monks held a mass prayer ceremony in tents just next to their classrooms.

Many students were left totally distraught. 'The students no longer carry a smile,' Principal Nyima Gyaltsen said. 'Even if we give them food, they have lost their appetites.'

He said 28 students had lost both parents and 300 had lost at least one.

More than 70 students had been confirmed dead and the school had been unable to contact about 600 of its 3,100 students, he said. However, since many students came from nomadic families and might have been taken home after the quake, the actual death toll was still difficult to ascertain, he said.

Six tents have been set up to accommodate the students, one tent for each year.

An average of 70 students occupied each tent, with four students sitting at tables 1.5 metres long and sharing books.

As the residents of Jiegu struggle to get back to normal after the 7.1-magnitude quake, they are constantly reminded of their losses and the long road to recovery.

Zhonggan Chuzhong came to school with her seven-year-old niece, whose three-year-old sister died in the quake when their home collapsed.

'It's good that school has resumed. She still does not know what has happened to her sister,' Zhonggan Chuzhong said. 'I hope that from now on our lives will become better.'

In the first-grade tent, Longzhi Duojie, seven, said his family was all right, but a good friend had died in the quake. 'I still have three good friends, so I still have friends to play with,' he said. 'But I miss him a lot. I know he's now living underground. I don't think he's happy there.'

The Yushu Orphan School and the No 1 Yushu Nationality Secondary School resumed classes at the weekend, and all secondary school students intending to graduate and sit the National College Entrance Exam this summer have been told to return to school by tomorrow.

No 2 Yushu Nationality Secondary School principal Baima Ngacyang said teachers were searching for students after receiving orders, although he believed they would only provide psychological counselling for them.

'All teachers went to students' homes or the streets around their collapsed houses to notify them that classes would resume from this Friday,' he told The Southern Metropolis News. 'For those living on the outskirts of town, we called local cadres and asked them to notify students.

'But I don't think anything from their textbooks is suitable to teach in such circumstances.'