Tibetans mourn as Yushu marks a year since quake

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2011, 12:00am

Thousands of Tibetans lit yak-butter candles and laid white silk scarves and flowers for the departed yesterday as Yushu marked the first anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed at least 2,700 people and left 200,000 others homeless.

At 7.49am - the exact moment when the 7.1-magnitude tremor struck the prefecture on the Tibetan plateau - people across Qinghai province observed a minute's silence, while sirens wailed and car horns pierced the air.

A three-minute silence fell on No 1 Wanquan Primary School as students and teachers gathered in the compound to commemorate those who perished in one of the deadliest calamities to hit the Tibetan-populated region.

The school grounds are only temporary, and the students are still studying in pre-fabricated houses in Jiegu town, the prefecture seat that was almost flattened in the quake.

Teachers say the foundation has been laid for a new school building and they look forward to moving in this summer, as the government has promised.

Primary Six student Dangqiu Lamao, 15, said life had been fine in the past year, but memories of the quake still gave her the shivers.

'I was on my way to school when the quake hit and I felt very dizzy, but I was unharmed,' Dangqiu said. 'When I got here everyone was crying, and a teacher said there had been a quake. Then I became worried that I would never see my family again. When I saw my mum at the school gate an hour later, confirming everyone was all right, I cried so hard.'

Locals say the rebuilding process has moved much slower than expected, and most are still tent-dwellers. Water and power supplies remain unstable for many - and unreachable for those who live in tents sprawled around the town. Teacher Tuding Cairen said: 'We don't have a new house yet and my family has been forced to move three times to make way for reconstruction.'

Local authorities and reconstruction staff from Beijing and Liaoning province cite the average altitude of 3,700 metres and long winters on the Tibetan plateau as the main factors that stalled the work.

At the official memorial service in Jiegu yesterday, top leaders, especially members of the Politburo Standing Committee, were conspicuously absent. The highest-ranking officials to show up were Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu and two other Politburo members - Propaganda Minister Liu Yunshan and General Xu Caihou, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission - along with several incumbent and retired ministers.

Rumours had been rife among locals that Premier Wen Jiabao, his first deputy Li Keqiang or Vice-President Xi Jinping would preside.

Security was tightened around Jiegu, with many routes sealed off to traffic from early in the morning.

On the hill slope of Zhaxi Datong overlooking the shattered town, where mass cremations of victims were held last year, hundreds of monks in crimson gowns from monasteries in Yushu gathered early in the day to chant sutras for the dead and perform ceremonies to help mourning families move on.

From 8pm, up to 1,000 Tibetans gathered for another prayer service on the hill, lighting yak-butter candles as monks droned chants. Police kept a close watch nearby.

Since Wednesday, monks had been preparing the wax for the traditional yak-butter lamps to be lit on the anniversary.

Families, rich and poor, brought in cartons of milk - cow's milk instead of the usual yak milk - and helped make lamp wicks.

On the morning of the anniversary, more families contributed their share of milk, Tibetan tea leaves, barley buns and traditional noodles to be burned for the departed.

'The smell of barley and our noodles are to let them know we are thinking of them,' said teacher Sangyang, 33, who lost her brother.

Tears welled up when they were asked about the past year.

'We are not supposed to cry a lot, according to our religious teachings, because that would make our loved ones reluctant to leave us and enter their next lives,' Sangyang said.

Her eyes reddening, veterinary student Gongsong Daiji, 22, who lost seven relatives, said: 'We must move on. We cannot wither with the dead.'

Nature's fury

Yushu's devastating earthquake killed at least 2,700 people

The 7.1-magnitude tremor left homeless this number in the prefecture: 200,000