Mournful 'Children's Day' in China

China marked "Children's Day" on Sunday, but offered little consolation to orphans or to grieving parents still seeking answers for the widespread collapse of school buildings in Sichuan after the earthquake.


Putting on a brave face, devastated areas of southwest China marked Children's Day on Sunday, but the memory of thousands of youngsters killed in last month's earthquake cast a pall over the normally joyous occasion.

"(The authorities) said we should come and celebrate because the kids here today are the future of Beichuan. But my son should be out there... my son should be out there," said one distraught young mother surnamed Li, watching the dedication of a "tent kindergarten" for displaced students.

Her child was one of thousands killed in the May 12 earthquake in southwest China, which hit schools especially hard.

Almost 7,000 schools across the region were destroyed, often wiping out entire classes and reportedly leaving more than 11,000 pupils and teachers dead.

The collapses sparked angry protests and accusations that corruption was to blame for shoddy construction, along with questions over the one-child policy.

In response to the bitter complaints, China has promised to investigate alleged corruption and punish anyone found guilty.

But as children, parents and teachers gathered in Leigu on Sunday, the focus was on the youngsters who survived, many now orphaned.

"We have to do everything we can to bring love and happiness to the children," Huo Jun, the principle of a Leigu kindergarten told AFP.

"The psychological scars brought on by the earthquake are huge, but we can overcome them."

In a country where most parents are limited to one precious child by government policy, Children's Day -- marked since the founding of Communist China in 1949 -- is a time for celebration.

Authorities here tried to re-create that celebratory mood, dedicating the "tent kindergarten" amid firecrackers and colourful balloons. The facility is for students whose school in the nearby town of Beichuan was destroyed.

In Leigu, children scampered among the balloons and mass calisthenics sessions, happy to try to put the shock and upheaval of recent weeks behind them.

"Basically we feel that most of the kids here are forgetting the psychological trauma brought on by the earthquake," said Hu Ying, a teacher at the "Jiuzhou Tent School" in nearby Mianyang city.

"But we always have to be careful. For most of the kids this will be the first Children's Day away from their families so we have to make sure they don't fall back into that shock."

That will be unavoidable for many kids, warned Dale Rutstein, a Beijing-based spokesman for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"We think that about 90 percent of the children who have been deeply affected by a disaster like this will fully recover. But a small percentage will need help to overcome the psychological trauma," he told AFP.

UNICEF, which is supporting the Chinese government on pyschological treatment of youngsters, has encountered several children who have become deeply withdrawn, unable to speak or remember what happened to them, Rutstein said.

Although state media says more than 6,000 children had been reunited with their parents following the quake, about 1,800 children still had not, including those who may have lost both parents, he added.

While they may eventually be paired up with adoptive parents, the state will care for orphans to adulthood if a new family is not found, the reports said.

But many kids will have to eventually let go of dreams of finding their parents or returning to their homes, Hu said.

"I am very happy here, mainly because we have a lot of nice teachers," said nine-year-old Wang Meili, whose home town of Beichuan was utterly destroyed and will not be rebuilt.

"But I want to go back to Beichuan and go to school there," she said as she jumped into Hu's arms.

The magnitude 8.0 quake left more than 68,000 people dead and nearly 18,000 missing.

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