Friday, May 23, 2008


XIANG'E, China, May 23 (Reuters) - School has not restarted in some towns devastated by last week's earthquake in Sichuan province, because too few children are left to attend.

In Xiang'e, the two remaining streets are eerily empty, after almost all the children died when the schools collapsed.

Some teenagers burn paper money in front of the rubble pile that was the middle school, while two soldiers who had helped dig out the bodies watch in tears.

The surviving children look like ghosts. They silently press against their mothers, voluble in their relief.

"He doesn't sleep at night. He used to sleep with his brother, and he wakes up with nightmares every night," said Li Rong, a talkative young woman with permed hair.

Her skinny 14-year-old cousin, Li Hongxing, one of the dozen survivors of the middle school, drifted past and settled in next to his mother. His 16-year-old older brother was among the 400 students in the mass grave outside of town.

Hongxing had ignored his teacher's orders and gone to the bathroom with a friend. As a result, he was not in his third-storey classroom when the earthquake hit.

"His brother was obedient. The obedient ones all died," his cousin said.

The four-storey school, built by the county about 10 years ago, folded like an accordion. A newly finished, never-used dormitory, just across the playground, is one of the few buildings still standing.

"In one minute, it dropped straight down, just like September 11. The second floor became the first floor," said a townswoman.

"The students and teachers are all buried in one grave. They were so mangled together no-one could tell who was who anyway."

Hongxing yelled for help from the bathroom until someone found him a few hours later. His classmates also yelled, but desperate townspeople couldn't move the heavy concrete planks. By the time a local brigade of soldiers arrived the following evening, all the students in the rubble were dead.

Hongxing's back still hurts from squatting under roof planks in the lean-to bathroom, and his scalp is full of scabs. His "almost six" cousin, a pretty girl with pigtails, gets a small smile.

He speaks only to correct his mother on details about the school.

"His heart has left him," his relatives agree.

His feeling might be understood by an elderly neighbour, Yang Liyin, who was dug out of her house by the party secretary.

"I am 84 and in all my life I had never imagined anything like this. I called and called," she said. "I had a tightness in my chest, and a feeling of nothingness in my heart." (Editing by John Chalmers)

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