Tiny bodies in a morgue, and grief in China

Posted in China | 15-May-08 | Author: Jim Yardley| Source: International Herald Tribune

A family grieving in the parking lot of the morgue.

JUYUAN, China: The bodies are everywhere. Some are zipped inside white vinyl bags and strewn on the floor. Others have been covered in a favorite blanket or dressed in new clothes. There are so many bodies that undertakers want to cremate them in groups. They are all children.

"Our grief is incomparable," said Li Ping, 39, eyes rimmed red, as he and his wife slowly, carefully pulled a pair of pink pajamas over the bruised, naked body of their 8-year-old daughter, Ke. "We got married late, and had a child late. She is our only child."

The earthquake that struck Sichuan Province on Monday has so far claimed 15,000 lives across China, and thousands more people remain missing or trapped beneath rubble. But the awful scene at this local morgue is a sad reminder that too many of the dead are children in a country where most families are allowed to have only one.

These children symbolized the earthquake's seemingly indiscriminate cruelty. But the cruelty, in the eyes of their parents, was also man-made.

Several schools in nearby Dujiangyan collapsed while classes were under way. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited two of them, including Xinjian Primary School, where parents say officials told him the death toll was 20 pupils.

"I am Grandpa Wen Jiabao," the prime minister said as he watched two children being pulled from the rubble, according to Xinhua, the official state news agency. "Hold on, kids! You'll definitely be rescued."

But enraged parents interviewed at the morgue on Wednesday afternoon and early Thursday morning say local officials lied to the prime minister to hide the true toll at Xinjian, which they estimate at more than 400 dead children. Several parents blamed local officials for a slow initial rescue response and questioned the structural safety of the school building. They were also furious that officials forbade them to search for their children for two days and then allowed access to the bodies only after the parents formed an ad hoc committee to complain.

"Before Wen Jiabao came, the whole school was filled with children's bodies," said one mother who sat outdoors at the morgue with her husband in the early morning darkness beside the covered body of their 8-year-old daughter. "Her father and I had stood outside the school since the earthquake. We pleaded with the government: 'If she is dead, I want to see the body. If she is alive, I want to see her.' "

Her husband, a thin man, leaned forward into the yellow light of two candles. "We're telling you the truth," he said. "Get the truth out."

The morgue is an hour outside Dujiangyan on an isolated rural road, yet the parking lot was filled at 1:50 a.m. on Thursday. Parents and other family members clustered around the bodies of their children. Some burned fake money to bring their lost child good fortune in the afterlife. In one room, 25 small bodies were scattered on the floor. Some children had already been taken away; an empty white body bag lay near a sneaker and a filthy pair of boy's trousers. Some families had placed flowers or incense inside empty water bottles as makeshift memorials.

"There are more in there," said a man, pointing to a rear door. He walked outside to a walkway and paused. Scores of bodies, covered with sheets, were lined in two long rows on the concrete floor. Others were placed in an adjacent room. Parents sobbed or sat silently beside bodies.

"They are all students," said the man in the blue shirt. "Look," he said pointing to a red and white jacket folded beside one body. "That is the school uniform." He pointed to a Mickey Mouse backpack. "There is a book bag."

The two rows of bodies came to an open door that led to the large steel furnaces used for cremation. In China, the dead are almost always cremated fairly soon after death. Usually, there is enough time for funeral ceremonies and rituals, but parents said that officials were worried about cremating so many bodies before they started to decompose. So some parents have been asked if their children can be cremated with dead friends to save time.

Parents say they were only allowed to begin identifying their children on Wednesday. The bodies had remained inside the gated grounds of Xinjian Primary School for two days until officials began transporting them to the morgue on Wednesday.

The earthquake struck at 2:28 p.m. on Monday, and many parents rushed to the school. Xinjian had about 600 pupils, ages from roughly 7 to 12. When parents arrived most of the building had collapsed. They frantically pulled away bricks and chunks of concrete with their bare hands.

"We pleaded with the administrators to help us," said one mother, Chen Li, 39, who came to the morgue on Wednesday to identify her son, a sixth grader. "We yelled, 'Where are the soldiers? Send them to help us!' "

Parents say neighbors and students from a nearby college arrived by 4 p.m. to help with the digging. Local officials and school administrators also came but then left after inspecting the site. Two more hours passed before a large group of paramilitary police officers arrived and told the parents to leave because the area was too dangerous. Parents were relocated outside the school gate, unable to watch as the officers began digging.

Chen said her son, Zhang Yuanxin, was discovered the same day as the earthquake but then left uncovered in the rain with other bodies on the playground. She said two trucks arrived Wednesday and carried away bodies shortly before Wen arrived for his inspection.

"I think there were 50 bodies in two trucks that were carried away," Chen said. "I asked those people, 'Are you taking the bodies away?' "

But she said local officials lied to her and said they were only taking away tents.

Parents say they became so angry over the situation at the school by Tuesday that they formed the committee and complained to local officials. Officials in Dujiangyan could not be reached for comment, but parents say the officials relented on Wednesday by moving the children's bodies to the morgue and providing shuttle buses for people waiting outside the school.

At the morgue on Wednesday, parents walked through rooms lined with bodies on the floor, lifting sheets in the unwanted search to identify a lost child. Cai Changrong, 37, held an urn containing the ashes of his cremated 9-year-old daughter. His wife, Hu Xiu, could not stop wailing.

"We didn't find any bruises or injuries on her body," said Hu, the mother. "But she lost all her nails. She was trying to scratch her way out. I think my daughter suffocated to death."

Several parents wanted an investigation into the construction quality of school buildings in Dujiangyan. They say six schoolhouses collapsed in the city, even as other government buildings remain standing. One man said officials built two additional stories on the Xinjian school even though it had failed a safety inspection two years ago ? allegations that could not be verified.

Li, the father dressing his dead daughter, also said he believed that the school was poorly built. He arrived at the school minutes after the quake and spent the next four hours searching for his daughter. His forearms were bruised and his fingernails were split and bloodied from digging.

He proudly handed over his cellphone and showed a picture of his daughter, Ke, taken last week. But Thursday morning, he and his wife were preparing for her cremation. They struggled to slip her into the pink pajamas and then dressed her in a gray sweatshirt and pants. Her mother placed a white silk mourning cloth under her clotted black hair.

Li said he lost his job in 1997 and had been living on a meager welfare payment. He said the school was filled with children from poor families. "My daughter was a very good student," he said. "She was a quiet girl, and she liked to paint. We're putting her in these clothes because she loved them."

He said he was angry and sad. He said his daughter's body was still warm when he found her at the morgue on Wednesday. He wondered how long she lived beneath the rubble. And then he turned away, leaning down slightly, and whispered in her ear.

"My little daughter," he said quietly. "You used to dress yourself. Now I have to do it for you."