The Other China: Beyond the Olympic Spotlight in Earthquake-Stricken Sichuan

As Olympics begin, citizens demand to know why quake felled so many schools.

February 18, 2009, 10:10 PM

SHIFANG, China, Aug. 10, 2008— -- Far from the pageantry and competition of the Beijing Olympics, there remains a dramatically different scene in China: one of loss and recovery in earthquake-stricken Sichuan Province.

President Hu Jintao declared that "hosting a successful Olympics ...[is] now the top priority of the country." As the world focuses on the Olympics, villages around the city of Chengdu are still sifting through the rubble from the magnitude 7.9 earthquake on May 12.

Early last week, the ground shook again in Sichuan, the epicenter of the May earthquake that killed at least 70,000 people. This time, the tremor measured 4.3 on the Richter scale. Three aftershocks followed last week.

Shifang, a small town in Sichuan Province, is a part of China that exists far beyond the Olympic spotlight. On the way from Chengdu to Shifang, the roads were lined with stacks of bricks and wire, precious resources salvaged by townspeople still digging through the rubble three months later.

A tractor sits where houses once stood, ready to pull out what little they can save. A woman carries a basket on her back to collect materials they can use to rebuild.

"Over here," Chen Weijie said, pointing at a high pile of rubble. "That's where my home once was."

As he sifts through the piles, Chen proudly wears a Beijing Olympics t-shirt. For many Chinese, the Olympics symbolize a triumphant effort by the Chinese government to debut China on the world stage. This is the same Chinese government that grief-stricken parents hope to hold responsible for the schools that collapsed, leveling 7,000 classrooms and killing thousands of children.

Anger still festers in Shifang. "How could the schools have so easily crumbled?" one father asked ABC News last week.

Local government leaders have repeatedly promised to get to the bottom of why nearly every school in the earthquake zone collapsed. Parents continue to demand answers from the Chinese government about why the public buildings fell "like tofu."

After the quake, many parents accused local officials of corruption and negligence when the schools were constructed. As the months wear on, there is little evidence that the government will conduct a full investigation on the building construction. Inspection of the rubble thus far has been cursory, families complained. Bulldozers have already cleared away the debris of collapsed schools.

Some have threatened to take their cases to the central government in Beijing, but that doesn't stop them from supporting one of the government's top priorities, the Beijing Olympics.

"I work six days a week, looking for bricks," Chen Banfen told ABC News. After she finishes searching the rubble, she returns home to temporary housing to watch the Olympics. It is her escape.

Survivors gathered in temporary housing provided by the local government and non-governmental organizations to watch the final legs of the Olympic torch relay and qualification competitions.

On Friday, they raised their glasses, and toasted one another as they watched the opening ceremonies. Communities in Sichuan lit candles laid out in the shape of the five Olympic rings, to show their support. This Olympic vigil in Sichuan was a strange role reversal from May, when the rest of the country held candlelit vigils for earthquake victims and survivors.

With the world focused on results of Olympic competitions, over 1,200 miles west of Beijing, there is another American team that is focused on a completely different challenge.

Wisconsin native Dee Galuba, global emergency operations manager of MercyCorps, has set up a makeshift warehouse in Sichuan's capital city, Chengdu, and dispenses hygiene kits for displaced families.

A team of aid workers and volunteers works tirelessly to fill the hygiene kits with supplies, delivering them to temporary schools. Galuba says it is easier to dispense the kits to the children instead of to parents.

"It can be a humiliating thing to sit there and wait in line as a full-grown adult, so [we] give it to the kids," Galuba said.

"You see these happy faces, these kids running out with the kits."

The volunteers have been working for over three months now, hoping to make a difference in a place that will require years of reconstruction. Galuba hopes the world will remember the children and their families of the earthquake in a time when so many lenses are focused elsewhere.

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