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China marks anniversary of deadly Sichuan quake

BEICHUAN – China’s President Hu Jintao on Tuesday led a sombre ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that destroyed a huge swathe of the southwest, leaving shattered lives and broken communities in its wake.

Hu and other leaders observed a minute of silence at 2:28 pm (0628 GMT) – marking the precise moment a year ago when the disaster struck – at a ceremony in the town of Yingxiu, at the epicentre of the 8.0-magnitude quake.

"Gradually, the reconstruction efforts have had important results, and the people in the disaster-hit areas are striding towards a new life," Hu said in a speech after the Chinese flag was hoisted over the ruins of the town.

Hu laid down a white chrysanthemum – the symbol of mourning – at the scene. Other leaders followed suit at the ceremony, which was broadcast live on state television.

Nearly 87,000 people died or remain on the missing list in a disaster that galvanised the nation but also left deep emotional scars.

"One year may be long enough for the most serious wounds to recover but not for broken hearts," the official China Daily said in an editorial.

Life is slowly returning to normal as new homes, schools and factories are being built at a feverish rate at construction sites across this mountainous region, although entire communities have been relocated.

But in spite of all the efforts to move on, it remains an area of unmarked graves with nearly 18,000 people still listed as missing – presumably buried under the rubble of China’s worst natural disaster in three decades.

Among the survivors, stories abound of lucky escapes.

Li Kaifu, a 40-year-old worker at the Hongda Chemical Factory, recalled he was at the doorway of the plant in Deyang city when the earthquake hit.

"When it started I thought for sure I was a goner," he told AFP.

"I remember all the buildings started to crumble. All around me they were falling. My mind was racing, I panicked and ran outside. Everywhere buildings were collapsing. It was incredible."

In the city of Beichuan, the worst hit community, a ceremony was scheduled for a new middle school to replace one that collapsed, killing 1,000 students, the Global Times newspaper said.

For many survivors, notably parents, the most controversial aspect remains the way schools crumbled to the ground throughout the region – testimony to sloppy construction.

Hu Jianjun, a 27-year-old teacher in Dujiangyan, recalled desperate efforts to find survivors in the rubble of Sichuan Agricultural University, which was severely damaged.

"I remember the soldiers pulling out body after body. It was terrible," he said.

President Hu, accompanied by Vice Premier Li Keqiang and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, met foreign diplomats late Monday who travelled to the disaster zone to pay their respects.

"The important thing we’ve learned," he said, "is that in the face of great natural disaster, the international community needs to intensify cooperation, join hands to overcome these difficult moments."

Hong Kong action film star Jackie Chan joined young quake survivors Monday in singing Nation, a song dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Amid all the attention however, some survivors were just hoping for peace and quiet.

"I am 89 years old and I have never experienced anything like the quake. My house was completely destroyed, I lost everything I had," said Yuan Chuanzhen from her new home, a Red Cross-funded nursing facility in Mianzhu.

"I’m lucky, all eight of my children survived. Now they must look for jobs, so they can’t take care of me. That’s why I came here."

AFP / Expatica